Long-distance runner on his last lap

Felipe Gonzalez was the saviour of the Spanish left, but his scandal- struck administration cannot last for ever. Elizabeth Nash examines the leader's long career
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The Independent Online
When Felipe Gonzalez was campaigning for the elections that swept him to power in 1982, it was said he had his sideboards tinted silver to make him look more statesmanlike. He was only 40 although he had been politically active for 18 years, 13 of them fighting Franco's dictatorship.

More than vanity made him go to such lengths to project his gravitas. Only 18 months before, a colonel in the civil guard, Antonio Tejero, had marched into parliament and held nearly every politician in Spain at gunpoint for 24 hours. Veteran socialists, elected by the people, crouched on the floor of the chamber and ate their party cards in fear of reprisals by Francoists. The elections in October 1982 produced a Socialist landslide which, to everyone's surprise and relief, the armed forces accepted without a murmur.

"This victory," Mr Gonzalez said, "more than that of a party, is the victory of democracy and the Spanish people." This was not just rhetoric. The moment Mr Gonzalez became prime minister marked the realisation that Spain's peaceful transition to democracy had succeeded. It showed the world that the Franco era was finished for good.

Since then, every big decision in Spain has passed through Felipe Gonzalez's hands. Successes during the boom years of the Eighties made him believe that he could control circumstances and determine the destiny of his country. But as the world recession battered the Spanish economy, unemployment stuck at one in four and corruption seethed and bubbled around him, the people did not have to ask who was responsible: they started to send him the bills.

Gonzalez was born in 1942 in the southern city of Seville. One of four children of a modest dairy farmer, he was the only one to go to university, where he studied law. A diligent student, his first political act was to protest against a visit to Seville in 1963 by Franco's tourism minister Manuel Fraga - today a leader of the conservative opposition People's Party.

He studied economics for six months at Louvain university in Belgium; on his return to Seville in 1964 he set up as a labour lawyer and swiftly won a reputation for defending workers unfairly sacked by their employers.

He struck up with another, more acerbic young lawyer, Alfonso Guerra, and between them they started to rebuild the once-mighty Socialist party throughout Andalucia, cell by cell, village by village. Most of the old exiled socialists from the Civil War were out of touch with what was happening, so Gonzalez and Guerra started to organise a new generation of socialists inside Spain.

In July 1969 he borrowed Guerra's Renault and drove to Bayonne to a meeting of the PSOE executive to deliver some home truths to the party's exiled leadership about the resurgence in Andalucia. Such was his eagerness to make the trip that he missed the civil ceremony of his wedding to Carmen Romero: a friend stood in for him.

Gonzalez quietly started to enlist the support of other European socialist leaders: Bruno Kreisky, Olaf Palme and especially Willy Brandt, who came to love him as a son. Backed by Europe's social democratic leaders, Felipe Gonzalez - still known by his nom-de-guerre, "Isidoro" - was elected leader of the still illegal party at a conference held outside Paris in 1974.

By 1977 the party was legalised in Spain, and within weeks he was on the hustings and elected MP in the first free elections since 1936. Unusually tall in a nation of short men, he strolled into the limelight and charmed a nation with his natural assurance, his boy-next-door smile, his black hair flopping on to his open collar and his commanding platform manner.

By speaking as if to his pals over a beer, he captivated huge crowds. He was educated but not patrician, familiar but not condescending, ironical but not abrasive, young, handsome and serious, the perfect role model for a generation of young Spaniards bored and repelled by the Franco strait- jacket. And his soft Sevillian consonants reassured Spain's proud regions that he was no part of Madrid's Castillian elite.

The late 1970s were exciting times in Spain. With Franco dead and the democratic forces pushing ahead, there was everything to play for. The Socialist party, emerging from its clandestine existence and bulging with new recruits, held congress after congress in those years to hammer out its position, in the delicious knowledge that getting it right would take it into power. Gonzalez was perfect, the right man at the right moment. Spaniards adored him. The whole country called him Felipe. In 1978, after a huge debate, the Socialist party decided to define itself as Marxist. Thousands of delegates flung their fists in the air and roared the Internationale.

At this moment, Felipe Gonzalez casually resigned. I am not a Marxist, he said, never have been, and you can call the party Marxist if you want to but not with me as leader. He was more interested in winning the majority of Spaniards than in ideological purity. And he walked off the platform.

The party was stunned. It swiftly watered down the reference to Marx and in a few months Gonzalez came back. The comrades marched smartly to the right and into government, and everyone learnt the lesson: without Felipe the Socialist party was nothing. After his election victory in 1982, he spoke from a prepared text for the first time, always wore a tie, stopped giving the clenched-fist salute.

Henceforth everything in the party and the country took place on Gonzalez's terms, and this is why, even if nothing is ever proved to link him with the activities of the Gal anti-terrorist death squads during the early days of his premiership, he will probably have to take the blame.

During the 1980s he took Spain into Europe, relished state visits, European summits, won election after election, not least because no opposition politician came near him for tiron, or pulling power.

Through force of will and what you might call brute charm, he pushed through unpopular measures such as Nato membership and labour laws that prompted the two rival trade union giants to join in a historic alliance against him; he also surrounded himself with bankers and policemen who have one by one trooped into prison under suspicion of corruption.

He does not cling to power for personal aggrandisement or enrichment. "Being in power seems enough for him," said one supporter. Despite the sleaze lapping at his ankles, even his bitterest foes have been unable to pin upon him personally any hint of shady dealing or impropriety.

But he and his team, so fresh and eager in 1982, now sit in their ministries drained of enthusiasm and ideas, paralysed in the face of the crisis that will not go away.

Gonzalez, never a great man for detail, became bored with day-to-day domestic politics. He immured himself in his Moncloa palace, rarely appeared in parliament, suffered periodic fits of depression and became disinclined to listen to advice. He broke with his lifelong friend and right-hand man, Alfonso Guerra, whose brother was involved in a scandal. Other close friends let him down.

The party in the country shrivelled. Worst of all, no one stepped forward, nor was groomed, to pump new blood into the old leadership. The Socialist party, after the trauma of 1978, continues to be a one-man band.

In the Seventies Gonzalez admitted that he was an insomniac and that he smoked too many cigars. He said his favourite book was Don Quixote, that he found it relaxing. Today Gonzalez's whole head is flecked with grey, and he probably longs sometimes to slip from public view and settle down with Cervantes and a Havana.

But not yet. He wants to ride the crisis and go when he chooses. In particular he has set his heart on heading Spain's EU presidency, which starts in July.

A friend of Gonzalez, who has worked with him throughout his career, said this week: "Felipe is a long-distance runner. He will never quit when things are going wrong for him. He was preparing to resign at a moment when things were going well, but then all these problems started. Now that everything is going wrong he will never quit."

But Gonzalez himself seems aware that he is on the last lap. "After so many years in government I have lost credibility," he admitted in parliament last week.

None the less he has now embarked on a race against time, in an effort to outstrip the tumbling avalanche of scandal and sleaze before it engulfs him.