Leading Article: The case for a change in Spain

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The Independent Online
FEW political parties in Europe can have done as much for their country as Spain's Socialist Party under Felipe Gonzalez: only West Germany's Christian Democrats, who rebuilt the Federal Republic from the ruins of the Second World War, look like competitors in that league.

Spain's road to democracy was rocky after General Franco's death in 1975. When the Socialists came to power in 1982, Spaniards still felt excluded from the mainstream of European political and cultural life - if no longer virtual lepers, still in the long shadow of suspicion and assumed backwardness that was the legacy of the old dictator.

Under the charismatic and ardently pro-European Mr Gonzalez, Spain swiftly entered Nato - a controversial decision at the time - and then, in 1986, the European Community. Thanks in no small part to EC aid, its infrastructure was greatly improved and the economy expanded rapidly; with hindsight, perhaps too quickly. Meanwhile, Spain threw off the stifling cloak of a Catholic church that had supported the Generalissimo. Determination to make good the lost years resulted in a ferment of creativity, notably in the field of design.

The resulting transformation was remarkable, if uneven. Now, 10 years on, the Socialists and Mr Gonzalez seem to have run out of steam. The party is deeply divided and recently has been tarnished by a tide of corruption scandals. The overheated economy is contracting sharply: at 21 per cent, unemployment is double the EC average; and the figure is even higher among young people. A creeping corporatism is invading government, with an unhealthy proportion of public functionaries being party members.

It is not for foreigners or their newspapers to tell the Spaniards whom they should elect. Yet, in objective terms, there is a strong case for change. That the centre-right opposition party, the Popular Party (PP), should have a good prospect of gaining more seats than the Socialists is a mark of its success in throwing off its old association with Francoism. For it to take power would be proof of the successful rehabilitation of the right. Some form of understanding with the Catalan nationalist party, though not necessarily a formal coalition, may be required. That in turn would represent a remarkable forward stride for regional autonomists, not just in Spain but also across Europe.

Mr Gonzalez's misfortune is to be responsible for the present dire state of the Spanish economy as well as for the remarkable achievements that preceded it. He hopes that the Spaniards will, like the British in April last year, opt for the devil they know. If they disappoint him, the PP's leader, Jose Maria Aznar, is likely to pursue policies long familiar to the British, and now increasingly to the French: privatisation coupled with reductions in public expenditure. On EC matters, his views are much closer to the British government's than those of Mr Gonzalez, a zealot of European union. Should Mr Aznar win, his more pragmatic approach could clash with that of Jacques Delors's would-be successor in Brussels - a certain Felipe Gonzalez.