Mountain people back a maverick: The leader of Spain's Cantabria region is on trial for corruption and his government has run up massive debts. But he is still popular, writes Phil Davison in Santander

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The Independent Online
IN FRONT of the ayuntamiento (town hall) in this northern Spanish port, you will find a rare sight. A statue of 'the Generalissimo', Francisco Franco, on horseback and gazing intently to the west. His helmet may have become a favourite perch for pigeons, his uniform blanched by their constant attention, but the long- time dictator, who died in 1975 after nearly four decades in power, still makes his presence very much felt.

The fact that he is still there is largely due to Santander's former mayor, Juan Hormaechea, now prime minister of the Cantabria region, one of Spain's 17 'autonomous communities'. It is the next one along, westwards, from the Basque Country. To call Mr Hormaechea controversial is like calling Franco conservative.

It is not so much because he once reportedly kept three lions in a cage in his flat. After all, he was planning to build a municipal zoo at the time. If his pet python had not wandered on to a neighbour's terrace, no one might ever have known of his unusual flatmates. Nor is it so much because of his reputation for sinking flagons of the local wine in the bars and wine cellars of Santander; or insulting his own party leaders in language family newspapers would not normally publish but did; or singing in the aforementioned hostelries the hymn of the old fascist Falange that was the backbone of Franco's movement.

More significant is that he is on trial for alleged corruption, misappropriation of public funds and handing out contracts to family and friends. A regional prosecutor has called for his removal from public office for 33 years, though not a jail term. His regional administration is running a public debt estimated at 90bn pesetas ( pounds 514m). With a regional population of just over 500,000, that is almost pounds 1000 debt per head and, thanks to Spain's high interest rates, rising fast. But, like that statue of Franco, he shows no sign of going away.

In fact, polls suggest he is still the most popular politician among the montaneses (the mountain people), as Cantabrians are known in Spain. Among Cantabria's conservative cattle farmers, he certainly strikes a populist conservative chord. His friendship with Seve Ballesteros's powerful father-in-law, Emilio Botin, the active head of the big Banco Santander, appears to do him no harm, either. Mr Hormaechea's father was once the bank's director in the city.

Not surprisingly, the Cantabrian prime minister is causing embarrassment to the conservative Popular Party (PP), of which he was a member until a few days ago and to which he is still offering himself and his local support in a post-election pact.

Upset at being left out of the PP's list of candidates for the national congress in next month's general elections, because of the corruption tag, he recently revived a local party thought to have been defunct, the Union for the Progress of Cantabria (UPCA), and named himself its leading candidate for senator in Madrid. He had first set up the party after a previous bust-up with the PP in 1990 - that was when he called the party's national leaders 'cretins' and worse - but was assumed to have shut it down when he rejoined the PP later that year. As it turns out, he had not.

The regional Electoral Commission on Monday sidestepped a PP complaint that Mr Hormaechea was guilty of 'double-militancy' - belonging to two parties at once - and ruled that he and the UPCA could run for the Cortes in Madrid.

The problem is that the PP, led by Jose Maria Aznar, is running on a platform largely centred on 'ethical government' and highly critical of corruption during more than 10 years of Socialist Party rule. Neck and neck with Felipe Gonzalez's Socialists in the polls, however, it can not afford to ignore the five national congressional seats and four senate places at stake in Cantabria on 6 June, even if it chooses to ignore the local government of an entire Spanish region.

Mr Hormaechea, with some reason, reckons he holds the key to most of the nine national seats. If, as seems likely, he gets to the Senate, he can also stay on as Cantabria's prime minister. Although he denies any such cynical thoughts, it can hardly have escaped his notice that his being a senator will force the regional court to transfer his case to the Constitutional Court in Madrid and delay any punishment for years.

Mr Hormaechea, a lawyer-turned- building-contractor-turned-politican, was a member of Adolfo Suarez's post- Franco Union of the Democratic Centre (UCD) when elected mayor of Santander in 1977. He served until 1987, although by then he was an independent on the lists of the PP's forerunner, the Popular Alliance (AP). He then went regional, got elected to the Cantabrian assembly as an independent on the PP's list and was appointed prime minister.

His much-publicised row with the party in 1990 - when, referring to Mr Aznar during a late-night drinking bout with a reporter, he said 'How can you trust a man who has only slept with his wife?' - led the PP to join a brief, unholy alliance with the local Socialist deputies and allow a Socialist prime minister, Jaime Blanco, to take charge of the region for several months.

It was then that Mr Hormaechea set up the UPCA and proceeded to win control of the local assembly in regional elections in May 1991. His point made, he 'dissolved' his party and joined the PP along with his fellow UPCA deputies.

Mr Hormaechea describes the corruption trial as 'a joke'. He took me on a tour of his pet projects. 'Look at that,' he said, pointing to the modern theatre and adjacent Merchant Navy school near the berth for Britanny Ferries' Plymouth-Santander run. 'We built those. There was nothing there. Of course that costs money. Obviously, that means debt.' Questions as to how or whether the debt will ever be repaid elicit the kind of response that suggests one should not ask such silly questions.

(Photograph and map omitted)