Spanish PM lays into his attacker

The Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, crossed swords in parliament yesterday with his conservative opponent, Jose Maria Aznar, but left little doubt he intends to stay the course.

During a heated debate about the performance of the government which ends today, Mr Gonzalez showed he had lost none of his legendary parliamentary skill. As he came again and again to the podium to counter criticism from the right and left, his ability to dominate the Chamber of Deputies went some way to explain why, despite the scandals that have ravaged the government, his party is still in power after 12 years.

In the first minutes of a confident opening speech, Mr Gonzalez addressed the most pressing issue: he rejected any government involvement in the operations of the Gal anti-terrorist group, saying anti-Eta death-squads had been in action in 1975, well before the Socialists came to power, and had been wound up in 1986 during a Socialist government. "The government has not been nor will be implicated in illegal operations ... we have always worked for the forces of state security to use legal methods, and anyone who says the contrary is lying."

He said the opposition was, for party reasons, using the Gal affair as an underhand way of challenging the government's legitimacy. In a first flash of passion he turned on Mr Aznar's Popular Party: "They haven't forgiven us for winning the elections [of1993]."

Replying, Mr Aznar addressed his remarks personally to Mr Gonzalez, who, he said, "confuses parliamentary majority with political stability". Spain was sick of a parliamentary majority that served only to keep Felipe Gonzalez in power and not to govern the country. Gal was the latest and biggest of a string of scandals to afflict the government in recent years.

Mr Aznar accused Mr Gonzalez: "You don't inspire confidence; you have lost credibility." Mr Aznar is often an awkward public performer but he was relaxed and raised a laugh when he said: "I am not in a hurry ... the worst thing that can happen is that I inherit your legacy."

Sparks flew when Mr Gonzalez sprang up to counter Mr Aznar: "I may have lost credibility after 12 years ... but you ... have not succeeded in gaining credibility." Mr Aznar in his speech had offered nothing positive: "People want to know what the PP will

do."

There followed a series of stand-up exchanges between the two men. Mr Gonzalez scorned Mr Aznar for suggesting Spaniards were sick of parliamentary majority. "Parliamentary majority is the most serious element of a parliamentary democracy." The opposition, he said, called for early elections not for the benefit of the people but because they thought they would win.

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