Leading Article: Spanish scandal need not be fatal

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The Independent Online
IT IS tempting to look for analogies between the accusations of corruption now damaging Spain's Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, and his Socialist Party, and recent events in Italy and France. The Italian comparison can be quickly rejected. The main scandal in Spain, the so-called Filesa case, involves a group of 'paper' companies allegedly established to raise funds for the Socialists by billing sympathetic companies for fictitious work. The sum involved is 1bn pesetas ( pounds 6m), trifling by Italian standards, which went to the party, not to the pockets of politicians.

An analogy with the declining months of government by Francois Mitterrand's Socialist Party is more plausible, although the number of scandals in France was greater. In both countries, unemployment has been a much bigger issue than corruption. But in France the smell of scandal fed popular disillusion with the governing party and a craving for change. The same could happen in Spain, where the Socialists have been in power since 1982 - the more so since the party is deeply divided.

The schism is essentially between a pragmatic, liberal and internationalist government and less-reconstructed ideologues within the party organisation who believe the government has lost contact with grass-roots sentiment. This week Mr Gonzalez threatened to resign as party leader, and thus as prime ministerial candidate in the general election due by the end of November, if someone within the party who knew about the Filesa scam did not own up and go. Surprisingly, the party's number three, Txiki Benegas, promptly offered to resign without accepting any responsibility for Filesa and complaining about the lack of solidarity within the party.

His offer will be considered when the party's executive meets on Saturday. It has already widened the rift between Mr Gonzalez and the party's more traditional wing under its number two, Alfonso Guerra. Mr Guerra resigned in January 1991 as deputy prime minister after a scandal involving a brother who had been acting as an 'adviser' to him. Relations between Mr Guerra and Mr Gonzalez are poor; but Mr Guerra is usefully popular in the struggling south.

The main opposition, the conservative Popular Party, is neck and neck with the Socialist Party in opinion polls. But it would not necessarily form the next government even if it won the most seats in the elections later this year. It is scarcely represented in Catalonia and the Basque country, whose own dominant regionalist-nationalist parties would not dream of forming a coalition with a party still tainted by the legacy of their enemy, the late General Franco. By contrast, they could easily team up with the Socialists.

Arguably, the latter would benefit from a spell in opposition; and where the European Community was concerned, the policies of a Popular Party government would differ little (although on Gibraltar it is stridently nationalist). But unless the Filesa scandal acquires new dimensions, the Socialists may not only survive their present difficulties, but also win a fourth term, even if within a coalition.