Spaniards reflect on how to vote: As campaigning draws to a close, don't-knows could hold the key to

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The Independent Online
FOR SPANIARDS, today is formally known as the Day of Reflection. Campaigning for tomorrow's general elections stopped by law at midnight last night to allow the country's 30 million voters a day to percolate the parties and policies on offer before casting their ballots.

Most will have made up their minds, in some cases generations ago. There are few left who lived through the 1936-39 Civil War, and the shadow of Franco's dictatorship may have faded, but both have left a profound mark on Spanish families and politics. It could be the younger generation, barely old enough to remember Franco's last years and his death in 1975, and the estimated five million undecided who will swing tomorrow's vote.

For the first time since winning the votes of more than 10 million Spaniards in 1982, the Socialist Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, is not a shoo- in. He won again in 1986 and 1989, but this time a small, dark-eyed former tax inspector, Jose Maria Aznar, threatens to separate Mr Gonzalez from his beloved bonsai garden in the Moncloa Palace in Madrid.

In an interview yesterday, a confident Mr Aznar predicted that his conservative Popular Party (PP) would win a relative, though not an absolute, majority in the Congress of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. He suggested 160 of the 350 seats would be 'a sufficient majority to carry out our project of change'.

That is around five seats more than most opinion polls have given the PP, but even the lower figure would probably allow Mr Aznar to form a government with the backing of Basque and Catalan nationalists. A PP score of 160 would imply less than 140 for the Socialists. The polls suggested the PP could win control of the Senate from the Socialists, who have 128 seats to the PP's 92.

Both main party leaders campaigned virtually until they dropped last night, squeezing in meetings up to the midnight deadline. Both held rallies in Madrid before moving to their respective strongholds, Mr Aznar to Valladolid, capital of Castile- Leon, where he once led the regional government, Mr Gonzalez to his home town of Seville in the southern region of Andalusia.

In the two-week official campaign, Mr Gonzalez has been trying to catch up after years of self-confessed 'losing touch' with the heartbeat of the nation while he immersed himself in government, concentrated on Europe and tended the bonsai garden. If re- elected, he told the daily El Pais yesterday, 'some elements will have to be corrected, that sense of distancing, working a lot but not getting around much'. Whether this realisation has come in time will be known in the small hours of Monday when results emerge.

The fact that the big two appear to be running fairly level, and that the regional nationalists and the Communist-led United Left coalition are likely to make gains, has led to the constant repetition of the term: el voto util, the useful vote. Both Mr Gonzalez and Mr Aznar urged voters in their final campaign speeches not to 'waste' their ballots on the smaller parties. There have been indications that the recent heart attack suffered by the United Left leader, Julio Anguita, who remains in hospital, could bring his coalition a sympathy vote in addition to those of many said to be disillusioned with the Socialists and unwilling to vote for the right.

Strangely, despite the sense that change is afoot, there remained little election-related passion around the country. Television sets in the bars remained tuned to Sergi Bruguera's French Open tennis semi-final rather than the latest campaign news. Mr Gonzalez - still looking tired - and Mr Aznar - still sounding dull - wheeled out stars of stage and screen to jazz up campaign meetings.

The Prime Minister had the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a hunky rock star called Loquillo to add spice to a big rally in Barcelona on Thursday night. Mr Aznar was endorsed by a leggy television star, Norma Duval, in Seville. 'I hadn't the foggiest idea Norma would be here,' he insisted as she blew kisses to admirers.

Just before Mr Aznar spoke, there was a drone from the sky and the crowd looked up. A small plane buzzed the Seville park trailing a giant banner calling on them to 'Vote for GIL'. GIL is the party led by and named after the controversial Mayor of Marbella and President of Atletico Madrid football team, Jesus Gil y Gil.

(Photograph omitted)