The Spanish Election: Fading memories and rising right trouble Gonzalez: As campaigning officially begins in Spain, Phil Davison reports from Madrid on the daunting problems facing the ruling Socialists

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WHEN A 40-year-old lawyer from Seville with choirboy good looks, Felipe Gonzalez, swept to power at the head of the Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) in October 1982, it was more like a revolution.

As red roses - the party's symbol - covered the streets, all but the most rigid right-wingers, in Spain and abroad, were moved by the fact that four decades of dictatorship had finally been laid to rest, the long-awaited transition to democracy complete.

The PSOE won an overwhelming 46 per cent of the vote for 210 seats in the 350-seat Congress (lower House). But a decade is a long time in politics and the falling off of the economic boom, its metamorphosis into recession, as well as growing corruption charges, has cut that figure, in the two general elections since, to 175 seats, one short of an absolute majority.

The latest opinion polls, carried out before last week's peseta devaluation, a 21.7 per cent jobless rate and higher-than-expected inflation, show the Socialists running at only around 36 per cent, virtually neck and neck with the main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) of Jose Maria Aznar. That could mean around 20 seats short of an absolute majority.

The campaign for the 6 June general elections officially began at midnight, followed by the ritual affixing of party posters in towns and cities around the country in the small hours of today. In fact, campaigning has been under way, unofficially but with a vengeance, since a beleaguered Mr Gonzalez announced on 11 April that there would be an election, six months before he had to.

The elections are for the Congress and most of the 252-seat Senate. For the first time since those salad days of 1982, Mr Gonzalez is not assured of victory. Neither the PSOE nor the PP looks like achieving an absolute majority, setting the scene for post-election horse-trading with smaller parties.

Under Spain's constitutional monarchy system, with the parties' prime ministerial candidates named in advance, it is all but certain that the next prime minister will be either Mr Gonzalez or Mr Aznar. But King Juan Carlos has the ultimate word and it is not inconceivable, though unlikely, that the leader of a smaller, or regional party could be appointed prime minister in the event of post-election squabbling.

If there is a hung parliament, whichever of the two leading parties has more seats is likely to form a coalition government with the help of the more significant smaller parties - the Communist Izquierda Unida (IU) or the regionalist parties from the Basque Country and Catalonia.

A recent statement by the Prime Minister, in which he said he would not try to form a coalition government if his party won fewer seats than the PP, was widely billed as a magnanimous gesture. In fact, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Mr Gonzalez appeared to be trying to tie the PP to the same principle, as the Basques and the Catalonians appear to be leaning towards the conservatives.

A confessedly 'tired' Mr Gonzalez made it clear he was running for a fourth term only because the PSOE had nothing remotely resembling a successor. Friends say the Europe-obsessed Premier has set his heart on taking over from Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission in 1995. Even if he manages to assemble a Socialist-led government after 6 June, Mr Gonzalez may prefer to hand over his prime ministerial job in mid-term.

Many say his signing up of the country's best-known and most-respected judge, Baltasar Garzon, 37, as a so-called 'independent' candidate on the PSOE's electoral list was apparently to groom him to take over as Mr Gonzalez's successor in mid-term. The handsome young judge is untainted, at least so far, by any hint of corruption although the conservative press has criticised his decision to enter politics.

But Mr Gonzalez may not have the luxury of handing over to a chosen successor. Mr Aznar's sudden rise from relative obscurity to potential prime minister has surprised not only his own party but, friends admit, even himself.

Perhaps the clearest sign of the PP's threat is the fact that Mr Gonzalez - who campaigned in the streets in 1982 but had since preferred visiting European capitals or tending his bonsai gardens - has been forced to get back to the soapbox this time round.

Or rather the bullring. The Prime Minister has been stomping the nation's bullrings - the Spanish equivalent of the town square - since he called the early poll. So far, there is no sign of blood in the sand. Mr Gonzalez is having trouble filling the arenas with PSOE supporters. He increasingly resembles an ageing torero - a legend in his time, now having trouble administering the coup de grace before an increasingly impatient crowd.

After nearly four decades of Franco's dictatorship and then the 1982 euphoria of a Socialist victory, much of the country has gradually moved from the left to the centre, perhaps even to the centre-right. As the new right - symbolised by the 40-year-old Mr Aznar - demonstrates its democratic credentials and steps from the shadow of Franco, it has, for the first time since the dictator died in 1975, become a serious alternative.

Aware of that fact, Mr Gonzalez has staged a virtual coup within his party, to give it a more centrist image and keep its left wing - its traditional power base - quiet. He has admitted the party's mistakes, promised completely new policies and hinted at a totally revamped cabinet if he wins.

One problem for Mr Gonzalez is Spain's 'baby-boomers'. A vital 20 per cent of the electorate is aged between 18 and 28, too young to remember much of the dark days of dictatorship or even the rose-throwing euphoria of 1982. Many see nothing wrong with voting for La Derecha - the right.

(Photograph omitted)