The Spanish right anoints its challenger

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The Independent Online
HE IS 39 going on 40, the same age as Felipe Gonzalez when the Socialist leader won the votes of a changing nation just over 10 years ago. Jose Maria Aznar, leader of the opposition conservative People's Party (PP), said yesterday he wants to emulate Mr Gonzalez's 1982 success and 'give Spaniards back their hope' by beating the Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) in elections due in the autumn.

Mr Aznar was confirmed as the PP's candidate by 98.4 per cent of delegates at the party conference at the weekend. He vowed to form 'a government for all Spaniards' and pledged a new code of ethics to combat Spain's endemic public corruption. Privately, he acknowledges that outright victory is unlikely this year. But he believes he can run Mr Gonzalez close and exudes optimism on his chances of burying the Socialists, by then almost certain to be without Mr Gonzalez on the ticket, in 1997.

Closing the conference here yesterday, Mr Aznar showed no hint of admitting that 1993 may not yet be his year. 'My government, the next government of Spain, will not be a government of parties. It will be a government for the entire nation. I will lead this party to triumph but the government we form will be one for all Spaniards. It's them we owe it to. It's them we are working for.'

The PP's 11th conference was its slickest-ever, somewhat reminiscent of the last Labour Party equivalent in Blackpool. Needless to say, that is a comparison no PP delegate ventured to make.

Comparisons with a more recent election were more prevalent, as Mr Aznar's wife, Ana, was increasingly described in the media here as 'Spain's Hillary'. A party activist and civil servant in the Finance Ministry, Mrs Aznar dismissed the comparison and insisted she would stand by her man and her party much as before 'by licking stamps and envelopes'.

Mr Aznar's conference applause was matched only by that for the party's founder, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, a former minister under the dictator Francisco Franco, who stepped down three years ago and handpicked Mr Aznar in an effort to change, or at least veil, the party's strongly right-wing image. Mr Fraga's place of honour next to Mr Aznar was empty on the conference's opening day. He had, he explained, something more important to do in Galicia, where he is regional prime minister and is concentrating his still-considerable power base.

Mr Aznar, considered by many as a mere puppet of Mr Fraga, was forced at the conference to back the latter's controversial proposal for a new system called 'Sole Administration' - effectively cutting the central government's remaining influence in the nation's already-autonomous regions.

The system, approved by the conference, is seen by many as an attempt by Mr Fraga to expand his own power. Its opponents believe it would pave the way for total independence in at least Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia, a fatal blow to Spain's continuation as one nation.

Some political analysts believe the fact that Mr Aznar accepted the proposal now shows he does not expect to win this year. Needing the votes of those who look to the nation first, before their own region, Mr Aznar would be likely to oppose the plan if seriously intent on victory, they say.

Mr Aznar, nicknamed 'Charlot' by his Socialist opponents because of his uncanny resemblance to the young Charlie Chaplin, is trying to shake off the 'Fraga's puppet' image with some success. He urged the party to continue moving towards the centre, where Spain's next elections will be won. His problem is that Mr Gonzalez is scrambling for the same centre ground.

(Photograph omitted)