Spain faces conservative change after election day `fiesta'

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Spain's conservative Popular Party claimed victory in yesterday's general elections after exit polls showed them well ahead of the ruling Socialist party. The polls showed the PP of Jose Maria Aznar a few seats short of an absolute majority, but the party spokesman Mariano Rajoy said the PP had won a sufficient majority to govern.

A state television exit poll gave the conservative party, which was bidding to end 13 years of Socialist rule, between 160 and 171 seats in the 350-seat parliament.

The Socialist party of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez was seen winning 120 to 135 seats. But a spokesman dismissed the polls as "mere studies", not to be taken at face value.

Yesterday's general election, the most decisive for 20 years, turned into something of a fiesta. Blazing spring sunshine contributed to the festive mood and encouraged an early rush for the polling stations.

The contest, expected to bring the conservatives to power after 13 years of Socialist rule, marked a historic change of course. Only 10 years separate Mr Aznar, 43, and Mr Gonzalez, 53, but they represent different political generations. A Socialist defeat rounds off the democratic transition from Franco's dictatorship, and confirms that Spain is not very different from any other European democracy.

The choice facing 32 million Spaniards yesterday was between two men. For the first time, voters were not conditioned by fears of revolution or military revolt. That is Mr Gonzalez's achievement.

Mr Aznar is a child of the transition, one who benefited from change but did not, like Mr Gonzalez's generation, make it happen. If the Socialist victory in 1982 brought to power the first generation not to know civil war, a conservative victory brings in the first generation not to know dictatorship. Mr Gonzalez on the campaign trail hammered away at the historic gains of his rule, the welfare state, educational opportunity, healthcare, pensions. The decline in support for him does not mean that these achievements are not valued: Spaniards accept them, criticise their shortcomings and want to move on.

Youngsters who have grown up under Mr Gonzalez do not see the silver- tongued firebrand of the 1980s, but the puffy, isolated leader of a government that has presided, steeped inscandal, over the highest rate of unemployment in Europe. Mr Aznar says he will change all that, and many, especially the young, believe him, or at least want to give him a chance. He promises clean government and jobs. Unemployment heads the list of Spaniards' worries, just as it did in 1976. But while 20 years ago the second and third worries were prices and social inequalities, now they are political corruption and terrorism.

Mr Aznar has kept details of his programme under wraps, although he has talked of "austerity" and "efficiency" which the socialists interpret as welfare cuts and industrial streamlining. He promises a hard line against Basque terrorism. This strikes a chord, since the Socialists' record on ETA separatists includes failed peace talks and an illegal dirty war for which a former minister is up before the Supreme Court.

Many have accepted Mr Aznar's insistence that his party represents the centre, and do not expect sweeping changes. But there may be a change in custom and style. After Franco fell, an artistic flowering and relaxation of formalities made Spain among the most tolerant countries in Europe.

Some conservatives may seek to turn back the clock.