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Spain's right-wing opposition fights back: Gonzalez on the run as Popular Party battles for the political centre

SPAIN'S general election campaign period was officially designated yesterday as being from 21 May to 4 June, but the conservative opposition leader Jose Maria Aznar lost no time in elbowing his way into the crucial battlefield of the undecided political centre. His Popular Party (PP) was not of the right but of the centre-right, he insisted, and would 'seek enough of a majority to put Spain in shape'. To ensure the elevation of the latter phrase from cliche to campaign slogan, he ran it by his audience of reporters one more time: 'We will put Spain in shape.'

The beleaguered Socialist Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, facing an economic downturn, a corruption scandal and a left-wing mutiny within his Socialist Party, had announced the previous day that early elections would be held on 6 June instead of in the autumn as scheduled. If the Socialists are running scared, the PP is full of confidence.

Voters, though, appear to be hedging their bets. The last opinion poll put the two leading parties neck and neck, but each with less than 30 per cent of planned votes, making a fragile coalition with smaller or regional parties likely. The left-wing United Left and the regional parties in the Basque country and Catalonia will almost certainly hold the balance of power.

The Cortes (parliament) was formally dissolved yesterday with publication of Mr Gonzalez's move in the official state gazette. The new chambers, the House of Deputies and the Senate, would first meet on 27 June, it said, and a new prime minister would have to be named within two months.

Mr Aznar's emphasis on the 'centre' of his party's 'centre-right' was aimed at allaying lasting fears of the right less than two decades after the end of the 40-year Franco dictatorship. Distancing himself just enough from the Franco image, while retaining the vital support of the Francoists themselves, will be the PP leader's balancing-act in the run-up to the poll. For the first time in Spain's recent history, the spreading 'centre', in a reaction to the extremes of the recent past, looks like holding the majority of votes.

With his charisma, sincerity, honest image and choirboy good looks, a freelance Mr Gonzalez might normally walk away with the centre vote. To his thinly disguised disgust, however, he is shackled to an increasingly anachronistic left by party ideologues.

Mr Aznar's problem is the opposite. His party should benefit from voters' desire for a change, but he lacks charisma and has alienated many through his heavy-handed, sarcastic attacks on Mr Gonzalez. There are many who may no longer wish to vote for Mr Gonzalez but are angered by Mr Aznar's lack of respect.

Calling the early poll, Mr Gonzalez blamed a sour political climate which he said was tying the government's hands. The PP accused him of waiting too long to call the election and of eventually acting in his own and his party's interest rather than that of the country. Left-wing trade union leaders put the boot in from the other side, saying the early election would jeopardise their hard-fought 'Strike Law', a controversial, still-pending parliamentary bill that would leave Spain's strike-prone workers with rights that employers regard as 'a nightmare'.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Table: Spanish House of Deputies ----------------------------------------------------------------- Socialists 175 (39.6%) Popular Party 107 (25.8%) CiU 18 (5%) United Left 17 (9.1%) CDS 14 (7.9%) Basque Nationalists 5 (1.2%) Others 14 (11.4%) ----------------------------------------------------------------- Chart shows the number of seats each party won in 1989, according to percentage of votes received. CiU is the Convergence and Union Party, Catalonia. CDS is the Democratic and Social Centre Party -----------------------------------------------------------------