Gonzalez agrees to lead party in early poll

ELIZABETH NASH

Madrid

Felipe Gonzalez agreed yesterday to lead his Socialist party into an early election next March, despite having said for months, indeed years, that he wanted to stand down.

"The truth is it doesn't please me at all, but that's how it is," Mr Gonzalez said of his seventh candidature. The Prime Minister bowed to the pressure of the party's federal executive to stand in his seventh election campaign, but the consensus was more resigned than enthusiastic, in recognition that no better candidate could be found.

Mr Gonzalez had been quietly preparing the ground for his Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, to succeed him, but that plan was scuppered when Mr Solana was appointed Secretary-General of Nato earlier this month. It was then too late to find a convincing alternative, although only 10 days ago Mr Gonzalez wondered aloud if he had become, like Margaret Thatcher, more of a problem for his party than a solution.

Mr Gonzalez's name has become smeared with scandal, primarily because of a dirty war waged against Eta suspects in the 1980s. Two former ministers are before the Supreme Court suspected of covert anti-terrorist actions in the early years of his rule. This has tarnished his electoral appeal, but party leaders reckoned that the Socialists' prospects would nosedive were he to cut and run so soon before an election.

The conservative opposition Popular Party is tipped to win in March, but possibly falling short of an overall majority. Its leader, Jose Maria Aznar, has failed to ignite public enthusiasm or to exploit fully the government's misfortunes.

Basking in the afterglow of a successful six-month EU presidency that ended at the weekend, Mr Gonzalez is likely to play the international card strongly. Critics say this is a ploy to divert attention from domestic woes, including a record 22.7 per cent unemployment.

His leadership has been undisputed since he became general secretary in 1974 when the party was still illegal. By 1979, his invincibility was such that when he stood down in protest at calling the party Marxist, the comrades dumped the Marxist tag rather than lose him. He fought elections in 1977 and 1979 and won in 1982, 1986, 1989 and 1993.

Mr Solana has been replaced by Carlos Westendorp, the Minister for European Relations.

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