An era is drawing to a close in Spain. After more than 13 years of Socialist rule, voters seem likely to throw out Felipe Gonzalez, the Prime Minister, in Sunday's elections and replace him with Jose Maria Aznar and his conservative Popular Party. It is a tribute to the solidity of Spain's post-Franco democratic institutions that this transfer of power, should it occur, will seem as normal an event as it would be in any other western European country. Democracy has taken root so firmly in Spain that the Franco era, which ended only 21 years ago, already seems a distant episode of history.
Mr Gonzalez deserves much of the credit for this. The firebrand political activist of the Sixties and early Seventies, elected leader of the then illegal Socialist Party at the age of 32, matured during his premiership into a thoughtful, pragmatic statesman. He took Spain into the European Union, maintained its membership of Nato, presided over an impressive modernisation of the economy and introduced overdue social reforms such as the legalisation of divorce. Above all, he made a vital contribution to his country's long-term political stability by demonstrating that the left could govern Spain without everything going to rack and ruin, inviting a backlash from the right. This was a great achievement in a country whose earlier history had been punctuated by violent disputes between radical forces of the left and authoritarian forces of the right.
Yet the later years of the Gonzalez era have not been so happy. A string of financial scandals involving some of Spain's most senior bankers and businessmen has tarnished the government's image. Worse still has been the discovery that Spain's security forces waged a "dirty war" in the Eighties against separatist Basque guerrillas. It's unclear to what extent the government, and Mr Gonzalez personally, were directly involved, but the affair has cast a dark shadow over Spanish politics for more than a year.
On the economic front, too, the Socialists have lost their touch. Almost 23 per cent of the Spanish workforce is unemployed. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union. Among people aged 16 to 25, the rate is a shocking 42 per cent. It is disturbing that even when the Spanish economy expands - and it enjoyed 3 per cent growth last year - it makes barely a dent in the ranks of the jobless. Given the scale of Spain's unemployment problem it's hardly surprising that more and more politicians are privately questioning the advisability of Spain's effort to join a single European currency in 1999. Other elements of the Gonzalez legacy are also under scrutiny, particularly the regulation of the economy.
Since losing their absolute majority in the election of June 1993, the Socialists have seemed tired, bereft of ideas and directionless. A spell in opposition might be the best thing for them. Yet if Gonzalez is defeated on Sunday that should not blind us to the broader historical verdict that he has made perhaps the greatest contribution of any single politician is securing Spain as a modern Western democracy.
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