BARCELONA, SPAIN — ON huge billboards througout this Spanish regional capital, the Catalan nationalists' slogan from the national parliamentary elections held earlier this month continues to cry out: "Now, we decide."
As Spanish President Felipe Gonzalez takes up consultations this week with a range of political parties to figure out who will back a government of "stability and renewal," Spain will learn how much truth the Catalans' campaign slogan still holds.
Although the Catalan nationalists did not win the pivotal position they anticipated in the June 6 elections, they remain one of the likeliest partners for Mr. Gonzalez as he forges a working majority.
What interests not just Spain but much of Europe is the price the nationalists are expected to demand. In exchange for either joining a coalition government or agreeing to support a minority Socialist one, the center-right nationalists will insist on concessions that would have a deep impact on Spain's economic and regional policies.
"Our support for the government Gonzalez names will come in exchange for greater [regional] autonomy and commitment to an economic policy that the left wing of the [Socialist Party] will find difficult to accept," says John Vallve, foreign relations secretary of the Catalonian government. "We want a stable government, too, but not at any price."
At the same time, inclusion of the nationalists in Spain's government would be a historic step - both for the country's stability and governability, and for the regions' sense of themselves. "This could turn Catalonia more into a region than the little country that it is now," says Salvador Giner, director of the Institute for Advanced Social Studies here.
Even though Gonzalez won an unprecedented fourth consecutive victory in the elections, he finds himself for the first time at the mercy of other political parties because his Socialist Party lost its absolute parliamentary majority.
Lacking by 16 votes the majority needed to confirm a new government early next month and then to pass legislation after that, Gonzalez is reduced to two likely options: working with the communist-led United Left coalition (18 seats) or the Catalan nationalists' CiU party (17 seats), perhaps along with the Basque nationalists' PNV (5 seats).
But Gonzalez himself hinted last week that he was less inclined to work with the United Left because its leader was "always very critical" of the European Community's Maastricht Treaty on European union, and of the austere economic measures Spain must undertake in order to qualify for an eventual single European currency.
"Clearly we [Catalan nationalists] remain his only alternative," says Antoni Subiria, Catalonia's minister of industry and energy.
Most Catalan observers and officials assume, however, that CiU's cooperation is more likely to come in the form of parliamentary support for Gonzalez's legislative program than as participation in a coalition government.
FOR one thing, joining in a coalition with the national government in Madrid may be too far a philosophical leap right now. "Seeing CiU join the Socialists in an executive function would be too much of a compromise with Spain for the most nationalist of the party's supporters," says Marc Carrillo, a constitutional law specialist at Pompeu Fabra University here.
But the Catalans have just as many pragmatic political reasons not to join. "Whatever its composition this government is unlikely to last four years," Mr. Subiria says. "We should be very careful about assuming too much coresponsibility in such a situation, especially when we would certainly not be getting enough important influence to make up for the risk."
The focus now is on the CiU demands. CiU's leader, Catalan President Jordi Pujol, last week demanded acceptance of a fiscal law reform, allowing Catalonia to keep at least 15 percent of the tax revenues it raises (rather than sending it to Madrid) "before even saying hello" to Gonzalez.
CiU leaders also want commitments to other reforms - a more flexible national labor policy, and tighter controls on central-government spending - that are unlikely to trouble Gonzalez personally, but which will not sit well with the left wing of his party.
Indeed, the Socialists' unsettled internal battles, which led to this month's elections in the first place, will determine how much leeway Gonzalez has in working with other political formations. The left wing has already signaled it will not accept the Catalans' regional fiscal demands.