The man who decided to fight: Felipe Gonzalez won the Spanish election, but it was hardly a triumph, argues Phil Davison

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IF, AS now seems certain, Felipe Gonzalez is asked by King Juan Carlos at the end of this month to head a new government, he will be on track, by the scheduled end of the next legislature, for an extraordinary 15 years in power. But the fact that Mr Gonzalez, like John Major, confounded the opinion polls by holding off the surging opposition leaves three questions unanswered.

Has he done well enough to form a government? That we may not know until after the new Congress meets on 29 June. To what extent will it still be 'socialist'? And can he - does he even want to - hold on to power until 1997?

The truth about Spain's latest exercising of its still-young democracy is that no one really won. Had it not been for the daily pre-election opinion polls, giving the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP) of Jose Maria Aznar a fractional edge in a hung parliament, the eventual outcome would have been seen as the beginning of the end of Mr Gonzalez's PSOE.

And so it may yet be, at least in its current form. The party has, after all, slid in popularity in each of the three elections since the then 40-year-old lawyer from Seville comprehensively defeated Adolfo Suarez's Union of the Democratic Centre (UCD) in 1982. This time the PSOE lost a further 16 seats, giving it a total of 159 in the 350-seat Congreso de los Diputados, the lower house of the twin-chamber Cortes Generales.

Had it not been for the polls, furthermore, Mr Aznar could justifiably have claimed a moral victory - to an extent he still can - by surging from an impotent 107 seats to a government-threatening 141.

Had it not been for the polls, which suggested that the Communist-led United Left (IU) would grab votes from disillusioned Socialist supporters and add perhaps 10 seats to its previous 17, the IU, the country's third-largest force, might have been content to add only one seat for a new total of 18.

And had it not been for the polls predicting a surge in their support, the Basque and Catalan nationalist parties - given that Mr Gonzalez's slide from an absolute majority will in any case allow them to play the role of power brokers - might have been content with their own showing (unchanged for the Basques, one seat down for the Catalans).

As it turned out, the PP, the IU and the nationalists were scarcely able to conceal their disappointment. Only the PSOE - though not Mr Gonzalez himself, who is much too smart to feel triumphant at his pyrrhic victory - was able to throw together a somewhat self-conscious and relieved victory party. So who needs polls? Many Spaniards will now have joined the Kinnock Academy of Disbelievers in Opinion Polls after Sunday's 'surprise' result.

The one true winner, if you discount the Catalan tennis player Sergi Bruguera, whose victory in the French Open created far more interest and emotion than the elections in most homes and bars, was Felipe Gonzalez himself. If anyone turned the polls around (if, indeed, they were ever accurate), it was the prime minister alone. There is no doubt that he 'won' in spite of, not because of, his party.

Before he opted, in April, to call a snap election nearly six months ahead of schedule, Mr Gonzalez, like the party, looked tired and way past his sell-by date. He admitted as much in interviews. He was said to be greatly disheartened at the problems besetting the idea closest to his heart, that of European unity, with once-backward Spain up there with the big boys, playing in the same league with the same ball.

Party corruption scandals were looming, the economy had stopped growing for the first time during his rule, and the PSOE was split down the middle between so-called renovadores (reformers, of whom he was the figurehead) and left-wing hardliners led by the party's deputy leader, Alfonso Guerra. No one is quite sure why, but something suddenly came over Felipe Gonzalez.

Some say it was the fact that he simply doesn't like to lose. Some say it was the idea of losing to a dull former tax inspector, Mr Aznar. Mr Gonzalez himself cited what he saw as the 'danger' of a 'return to the same old Right'. Many believe he could not bear the idea of ending his career in near-disgrace, instead of taking Spain into the heart of a new Europe and fulfilling what he sees as his destiny as one of Europe's great statesmen. Whatever the case, Mr Gonzalez opted to fight. Virtually single-handedly, he set about turning things around.

With considerable sleight of hand that may yet come back to haunt him, he managed to sweep the two most serious corruption scandals under the carpet. The first was the embarrassing case of Mr Guerra's brother, Juan, a businessman who was found to be using a government office and more than a little brotherly influence. Mr Guerra has long since resigned as deputy prime minister and the scandal faded from view, to be resolved after the elections.

The second scandal concerned a Supreme Court judge, Marino Barbero, who was said to have been on the point of 'fingering' a Socialist senator for dubious party fund-raising. He postponed his report from 3 June until after the election. Judge Barbero justified his decision by saying he did not want to influence the elections. Many felt that by saving the PSOE from great embarrassment, he did just that, to the Socialists' benefit.

Mr Gonzalez then muzzled Mr Guerra, the man who had organised the great 1982 triumph as well as the victories of 1986 and 1989. The prime minister essentially ran his own campaign, based on his own personal image, and did what he had not done since 1982 by hitting the campaign trail weeks before the campaign proper began. Recognising public concern, he admitted his mistakes and promised to correct them. Cleverly turning his own problems into weapons, he pledged a Cabinet clean-out and a new 'social pact' to create jobs.

He promised to wage war on corruption and signed up the country's best-known young judge, Baltasar Garzon, to run as an independent on behalf of the PSOE and thereafter set up an anti-corruption commission. It was when Mr Garzon, 37, was named as No 2 on the PSOE's election list for Madrid, ahead of the foreign minister, Javier Solana, that people began suggesting he was being 'groomed' as Mr Gonzalez's successor. It is an open secret that Mr Gonzalez would like nothing more than to take over from Jacques Delors as European Commissioner in 1995.

And so, confounding the polls, Mr Gonzalez 'won'. But the key to his thinking may have been in his attitude, and words, as the PSOE put on a post-result celebration in Madrid's posh Palace Hotel. That was where the same party leaders, their hair longer, their beards blacker, had tossed red roses into a jubilant crowd after the election night of 28 October 1982. This time, Mr Gonzalez popped in only briefly. This time, he did not appear at a window to toss roses or raise his fist in triumph.

You did not have to be a psychologist to see that he was uncomfortable, his smile forced, his mind no doubt on the difficult task ahead. 'I have understood the citizens' message,' he told his supporters. Referring back to his famous 1982 call for change, he declared: 'This time, the triumph will be to change the changes.'

(Photograph omitted)