Trouble follows the Aznar honeymoon ends

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The Independent Online
The three-month period of grace that Spaniards traditionally grant an incoming government dribbled to an end this week in the dog days of high summer. But holiday languor could not conceal widespread disappointment in the limited achievements of Jose Maria Aznar's conservative government.

"Could do better," was the grudging verdict of the important business newspaper Expansion, while the trade unions, initially disarmed by promises of dialogue and consensus, warn of trouble in the autumn when state companies are sold off and budget squeezes are due. A survey last week found that fewer than a third of Spaniards reckoned Mr Aznar had done a good job; women were particularly disenchanted.

Two weeks ago he decided to keep secret 18 intelligence documents requested by judges investigating undercover anti-terrorist hit squads. The decision, on grounds of "state security", suggests that despite strident election promises of openness, the Popular Party government is no more committed to transparency than its Socialist predecessor.

Commentators say the government, preoccupied with image and presentation, has so far limited itself to the modest objective of not screwing up. The result: too much of Mr Aznar's teeth and moustache on the front pages, plenty of announcements and few concrete measures. And - notwithstanding the Prime Minister's iron publicity machine - a few clangers.

An arranged marriage with Catalan and Basque nationalists, imposed by parliamentary arithmetic, turned unexpectedly into a solid partnership and produced a success in the first 100 days: a relatively honest and flexible anti-terrorist policy, something that eluded the previous government. Eta Basque separatists, still intact and capable of terrorist action at any moment, were wrong-footed by skilful actions from Madrid. Credit is due to the Interior Minister, Jaime Mayor Oreja, in collaboration with seasoned conservative Basque Nationalists. He undercut a key Eta demand by relocating prisoners, and reorganised police and security services.

Mr Mayor Oreja emerges as Mr Aznar's most popular minister, ahead of the two vice-presidents - the economy supremo, Rodrigo "Scissorhands" Rato, and the political hard-man, Francisco Alvaro Cascos.

Mr Rato has to squeeze Spain into the corset imposed by the demands of a single European currency by 1999, whilst keeping the unions on-side and welfare provisions intact. Despite brave promises of liberalisation, privatisation and tax cuts, economic policy to date has been timid, what Expansion calls "declarations of intent".

Mr Rato pledged to slash top posts by 5,000, only to find they numbered hundreds, half of them held by public servants who had to be redeployed. He announced pounds 1bn in spending cuts, leavened by investment-boosting measures whose effect so far has been negligible. The economy remains sluggish and a consumer boom elusive. He plugged an unforeseen budget "hole" by an improvised tax hike on spirits and tobacco, a decision that won public approval.

Mr Rato negotiated the crucial ruling pact with the Catalan nationalists, and will need every crumb of goodwill from that quarter, since the Catalan Convergence and Union party led by Jordi Pujol is cracking the whip, urging the government harder and faster down the road to fiscal austerity. Internationally, the government won a European extradition deal on terrorists but flip- flopped over Cuba - first supporting, then distancing itself from the US Helms-Burton act that punishes foreign firms, many of them Spanish, operating in Cuba. Closeness to France - the key to anti-Eta measures - looks set to replace the German friendship so treasured by the Socialists. The government is as barefaced as its predecessors in controlling state media, and placing friends in top public jobs. It has ditched everything experimental and avant-guard for the conventional, the "normal" - Mr Aznar's favourite word. Some fear, despite four female ministers, that this points to a more traditional role for women.

Socialist opposition has ranged from limp to mute. But the Socialist leader, Felipe Gonzalez, promises that this will change in September.