Voters' anger is brought home to Gonzalez: Elections in the Spanish PM's stronghold promise trouble, writes Phil Davison in Malaga

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The Independent Online
UNDER normal circumstances, the Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, would be likely to survive the predicted hammering for his ruling Socialists in tomorrow's European vote. Unfortunately for Mr Gonzalez, he also faces the prospect of a historic setback in simultaneous regional elections in Andalusia, his home region and traditional stronghold.

Polls indicate his Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) will lose the European race to the conservative Popular Party (PP) for the first time in a nation-wide vote. Such outright defeat in Andalusia - one of Spain's 17 'semi-autonomous communities' - is unthinkable but the Socialists could lose their absolute majority in the Seville-based regional parliament for the first time since taking power in Spain in 1982.

The PSOE currently has 62 seats in the 109-seat Andalusian parliament, the PP 26 and the Communist-led United Left coalition (IU) 11. Polls suggest the PSOE could slip below the absolute majority of 55, losing votes to both the PP and IU. The latter's Communist leader, Julio Anguita, whose calm campaigning contrasted with the mutual abuse slung by the big two, may win over many disillusioned former PSOE voters who cannot bring themselves to vote for what they still consider the Francoist Right.

The extent of the PSOE's predicted twin-setback could force the embattled Prime Minister, his popularity at its lowest ebb as corruption cases have come uncomfortably close to his door, to dissolve parliament in the autumn and call a snap election. As a minimum, he is expected to clean out his cabinet, dumping the deputy Prime Minister, Narcis Serra, over a corruption scandal.

Tomorrow's regional vote is the first since Mr Gonzalez squeezed into a fourth term in general elections last June, without an absolute majority and forced to rely on highly- conditional support from the independence-minded Catalan nationalist coalition, Convergencia i Unio (CiU). The CiU leader, Jordi Pujol, has said he will continue his pragmatic support unless the European and Andalusian results are 'catastrophic' for the Socialists.

The leading Andalusian candidates, backed by their party leaders, wound up their campaigns in Seville last night, leaving today - under Spanish electoral law - as a campaign-free 'day of reflection'. It was one of the dirtiest campaigns in Spain's modern democratic history.

The PSOE deputy leader, Alfonso Guerra, exiled to relative obscurity since his 1991 resignation as deputy Prime Minister - his brother Juan had been running a business empire from a government building - was wheeled out to sling red roses at supporters and dirt at the PP. He accused the PP's candidate for the 'presidency' (regional prime minister) of Andalusia, Javier Arenas, of making money from contracts related to the Expo '92 exhibition in Seville while he was a member of the Spanish parliament. Mr Arenas demanded an apology, published documents showing he had severed links with private business when he became an MP and threatened legal action.

The PSOE also accused the PP of 'buying' peasants' votes for up to 5,000 pesetas (pounds 25) in the La Carolina area. The allegation was partly based on an inexplicably-taped telephone conversation in which one caller spoke of bribes and the other grunted as though trying to get his interlocutor off the phone line. The PP denied the charge and initiated legal action.

The PP said the 'vote-buying' charge was aimed at deflecting attention from two PSOE practices which have been highly criticised by the conservative and left-wing opposition. The first is the long-standing agricultural subsidy scheme - known as the Rural Employment Plan (PER) - under which agricultural day-labourers are guaranteed half a year's pay so long as they work two months. The opposition says the system encourages idleness and that, of the pounds 50m or so a year involved, much ends up in the wrong pockets. A landowner near Malaga was recently arrested for obtaining pounds 100,000 in PER subsidies by signing nearly 200 fictitious work contracts.

Secondly, the Socialists offered Andalusian housewives a week's free holiday, with their vote implicit in return. The move may have backfired. 'We want jobs for our husbands, so that we can go on holiday together,' said one outraged housewife.

(Photograph and map omitted)