Spanish polls 'turn the tortilla'

FROM ELIZABETH NASH

in Madrid

Spain's conservative opposition People's Party (PP) won a decisive victory in elections for regions and town halls on Sunday, causing a severe setback for the Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez and transforming the political map.

The tortilla has been turned over, as they say here, and the PP has established itself as the principal force in the main centres of power in Spanish politics: the big cities and the regional governments. It is the first time the right has won democratic elections so comprehensively, and the results point strongly towards a victory for the PP, which has never been in government, in general elections due in 1997.

With 35 per cent of the vote, the PP won more than 40 of the 50 provincial capitals, 32 of them with an absolute majority. In autonomous regions, 10 of the 13 that voted put the PP first, and five gave it an outright majority. Socialists remain in control of only two of the 13, compared with the eight they had held previously.

However, the Socialists' vote, at 31.5 per cent, held up better than expected. Opinion polls consistently underplayed its importance in small towns, where a conservative campaign for change and renewal exerted little appeal.

The Socialists held on to two rural strongholds, the regions of Extremadura, bordering Portugal, where they will need the support of the pro-Communist United Left party to rule, and in Castile- La Mancha in the central plains, where they held their absolute majority.

The Socialists also held the municipal jewel in their crown, the city of Barcelona, in an evenly matched contest with Catalan nationalists, and kept their absolute majority in the north-western port of La Coruna.

The PP leader, Jose Maria Aznar, hailed the result as "a sweeping triumph". The PP likened its takeover of the town halls to that achieved by the Socialists in 1979 - which was the launchpad for the Socialist election landslide of 1982.

Addressing thousands of euphoric supporters outside his party's Madrid headquarters on Sunday night, Mr Aznar said the results showed people's longing for a change. ''This is only the first step: the next one will be the government of Spain.''

For the governing Socialists, the result was, in the words of a front- page editorial in El Pais newspaper, a simple defeat rather than the total collapse they had feared. The PP has made strong inroads among the urban middle class and the young - those sectors most disenchanted with the sluggish economy and the sleaze surrounding Mr Gonzalez and his ministers.

But the PSOE held its bedrock of support among the poor and the elderly, who owe the palpable improvement in their lives to 13 years of Socialist government. They feel the PP has little to offer them and may even take away the gains they have won.

Socialists probably also held on to the votes of a substantial sector of the middle classes who fear that behind the smooth moderation of the PP campaign lie many old hardliners with only a tenuous loyalty to democracy who are quietly biding time.

The Prime Minister appeared late on Sunday at his party's headquarters to congratulate the PP on its victory. He noted that the Socialists had picked up votes since last year's European elections. "We will continue fighting," a smiling Mr Gonzalez said, "with the will to win the next elections which will be in 1997."

The PP has not, so far, repeated its demand of recent months that Mr Gonzalez should call an early general election. Each of the main parties meets in coming days to discuss what to do next. In many cities and regions, both the Socialists and the PP will have to negotiate pacts, either with the pro-Communist United Left which, with 11 per cent of the vote, increased its support, or regional conservative parties.

The turnout, at 69.79 per cent, was higher than in any of the five previous local and regional elections since democracy was restored after the death of Franco 20 years ago. This reflected the national significance of a vote widely presented as a judgement on Mr Gonzalez's government, now half-way through its fourth term.

The Socialists have narrowed the gulf of nearly 10 percentage points that yawned between them and the PP in last year's European elections, and may have given Mr Gonzalez a breathing space as party leader. But Sunday's results none the less suggest that the era of Socialist supremacy in Spain is over.

Another Socialist recovery like this, one commentator said early yesterday, and they will go down to electoral defeat.

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