Felipe Gonzalez arrived home from the Middle East yesterday to face an open war between his minority Socialist government and his former allies, the Catalan nationalists, that could precipitate snap elections in Spain within months. The Prime Minister returned to find that his delicate manoeuvring with the Catalan leader, Jordi Pujol, had given way to brusque confrontation.
Catalan nationalists in the Convergence and Union (CiU) party, seeking to put maximum distance between themselves and the government in preparation for regional elections, announced this week that they would reject the forthcoming national budget for 1996. Mr Pujol said yesterday that the only budget he would accept "would have to be presented by a different government".
The threat to sink the budget and force a dissolution of parliament was trumped by the Economics Minister, Pedro Solbes, who riposted that he would in that case withhold precious state funds - 15 per cent of income tax revenues - flowing to Catalonia and other autonomous regions.
Mr Gonzalez, whose Middle East tour as EU president was dogged all week by painful messages from Madrid, indicated in Beirut on Wednesday that if the budget failed to pass by late October he would shortly thereafter dissolve parliament. It was his first indication that he was prepared to bring the poll forward from March.
The Prime Minister's difficult week was eased only by encouraging economic figures for August: employment is up, and inflation and the deficit down.
If Mr Pujol holds elections in Catalonia on 19 November, as he would like, he must distance himself immediately from the discredited government he was supporting only weeks ago and campaign on the economic gains of two years of co-operation.
But if Mr Gonzalez is forced to an autumn election, it would suit Mr Pujol to wait until March, by which time voters would have administered their punishment to the Socialists and he could expect to claw back his own supporters. What he wants to avoid is for the Catalan and the general elections to coincide, forcing him to bear the full force of the anti- Gonzalez backlash. Mr Pujol's problem is that he must declare himself before Mr Gonzalez does.
Uppermost in Mr Pujol's mind is the encroachment in his fiefdom of the conservative opposition Popular Party. An absolute PP majority could hang on seats won in Catalonia.
The PP leader, Jose Maria Aznar, repeated this week his call for a censure motion that could bring down the government and has readied his troops for a possible October poll.
Among the many uncertainties is who will lead the Socialists to expected defeat. Whether Mr Gonzalez will run for a fifth term is thought to depend primarily on his own wishes. Despite everything, he remains his party's strongest asset.