Gonzalez under a cloud as Spain's 'barometer' swings further right: Regional polls in the conservative heartland of Galicia may hurt the PM, says Phil Davison in Santiago de Compostela

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The Independent Online
THERE is a Spanish saying that if you meet a Gallego (Galician) on a staircase, you can never tell whether he is going up or down. The dour inhabitants of this windy and rainswept north-west region of Spain, descendants of the Celts who arrived on these shores 3,000 years ago, are not the type of folks who readily spill out their feelings, or voting intentions, to passing strangers carrying clipboards.

They are, however, extremely conservative with a small 'c' and, according to local and national elections since Spain's transition to democracy, as well as recent opinion polls, you can make that a capital 'C' for the majority.

On Sunday, more than 2.2 million Galicians will vote for their 75-member regional parliament in Spain's first big ballot since the June general elections that saw Felipe Gonzalez's Socialist Party (PSOE) scrape through without an absolute majority. Barring miracles of the type that led a star-guided local shepherd to find the tomb of the apostle St James here - turning Santiago de Compostela into a Catholic equivalent of Mecca - the PSOE will not win.

This is, after all, the land that gave birth to General Franco in the northern port of El Ferrol, largely still reveres him and is ruled by his former right-hand man, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, aged 70. The conservatives have won every vote since Spain's democratic transition.

Although all opinion polls point to an increased absolute majority for Mr Fraga's conservative People's Party (PP) and significant losses by the PSOE, that characteristic Galician secretiveness, coupled with the danger of large-scale absten tionism, leaves at least the scale of the conservatives' victory in doubt.

Despite Galicia's image within Spain of a kind of remote backwood, where curanderos (witch doctors) are common and many peasants still fear 'the evil eye', all of Spain will be watching any swing in Sunday's vote as a barometer of response to Mr Gonzalez's troubled first four months and of the plausibility of PP predictions of forced new general elections within two years and an ensuing nationwide conservative victory. 'Victory here will mean future victory throughout Spain,' the PP's national leader Jose Maria Aznar said in Galicia this week.

Mr Fraga, who founded the PP, then known as the People's Alliance, after Franco's death in 1975, and led it until handing over to his protege, Mr Aznar, four years ago, was elected prime minister of the semi-autonomous Galician government in February 1990. He and the PP at present rule with the minimum absolute majority, 38 of the 75 local parliamentary seats. Barring widespread abstentionism resulting from over-confidence and continuing torrential rain, polls predict both the PP and the Galician nationalists will gain seats at the expense of the Socialists.

In Santiago and the surrounding countryside, you will bump into thousands of stick-carrying, backpacking pilgrims on the famed road to Santiago, or perhaps Mr Fraga's own campaigning entourage. 'The pilgrims come here to reconstitute their spirituality,' Mr Fraga noted this week. His own flesh-pressing road tour has less elevated aims.

The PSOE has replied by bringing in its big guns, including Mr Gonzalez, who failed to fill a medium-sized sports hall in La Coruna this week, and the Socialist Party troubleshooter Carlos Solchaga. The latter could not resist a jibe at Mr Fraga's Francoist past, likely to backfire in the dictator's homeland come voting day.

Mr Gonzalez himself taunted the former Franco minister on nationwide television during the general election campaign in the summer, mocking Mr Fraga for wasting public money on 1,500 pipers - another Galician tradition brought in by the Celts - at his 1990 inaguration as regional Prime Minister. Mr Fraga said the musicians had played in return for tapas de pulpo (chopped-octopus snacks) and promised to have 3,000 pipers blow their lungs out at his next inauguration.