Spain's Socialist get a grim warning

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(First Edition)

MADRID - For Spain's ruling Socialists, battered by corruption scandals and economic failure, the expected election rout of their French counterparts yesterday was a stark reminder of the slump in their own popularity.

At the end of what Spanish newspapers have declared 'a black week for the Socialists', the government of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez is now just a single point clear of the opposition, the right-of-centre Partido Popular (PP), according to the latest opinion poll.

With a general election due to be held in Spain before the end of November, the poll published in yesterday's Vanguardia newspaper showed the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) would win just 36.5 per cent of the vote, against 35.4 per cent that would go to the PP. In the last elections, held in 1989, the PSOE ended up almost 15 percentage points clear of the PP.

In an interview with Efe news agency over the weekend, Mr Gonzalez said his party still had time to recover and win an outright victory, but he agreed it would not be easy. 'The continued accusations of corruption being levelled at the party have perhaps hit us hardest,' said the Prime Minister.

The corruption issue arose earlier in the week when investigators reported that the PSOE had received illegal funds from two companies in the late 1980s. Mr Gonzalez told a meeting of students - who constantly interrupted him with shouts of 'Thief]' and 'Resign]' - that he would indeed quit if the corruption allegations proved to be true. 'Independent of any legal responsibilities, the party will assume its responsibilities. And I'll assume mine, as head of the party . . . if that requires me to resign I am ready to,' he said.

Mr Gonzalez also pledged to pull the country out of the economic quagmire, but with the unemployment level touching 20 per cent and Spain's economy shrinking in the last quarter of 1992 for the first time since 1981, Mr Gonzalez knows that time is against him. 'We are touching the bottom now,' he said. 'But there are no magic solutions to this crisis .. We have to remember it's an international crisis and that a country the size of Spain, whatever you might think, would be making a terrible mistake if it tried to find a solution to this on its own.'

Just as unity is most needed to confront a well-organised PP, cracks have begun to appear in the PSOE. These include an apparent stand-off between Mr Gonzalez and the party's vice-secretary, Alfonso Guerra. 'There have always been certain differences between Alfonso and myself,' the Prime Minister told Efe. But he added: 'There has been an apparent weakening of unity and cohesion in the party.'

The PP is happily awaiting the French Socialists' defeat. The party's president, Jose Maria Aznar, said after the first round of voting was held in France last week: 'The result in France is a premonition of what's going to happen at the next elections in Spain.'