MADRID — WHENEVER Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez gets into political trouble, he looks to Barcelona, the host of the 1992 Olympics and now the key to his future because of a wily and powerful party boss: Jordi Pujol.
Mr. Pujol, leader of Catalonia's nationalist Convergence and Union party, has steadfastly stood by Mr. Gonzalez's minority government over the past two years, ensuring the Socialists a working majority in parliament despite one political scandal after another. Until now.
When reports emerged last month that Spain's military intelligence unit, CESID, had listened in on the mobile-phone calls of King Juan Carlos and other top officials, Pujol drew a line in the sand, calling for early general elections in 1996 that will radically change the political landscape.
Pujol and Gonzalez have been quietly negotiating behind closed doors since then. The public showdown comes Monday, the Catalans' self-imposed deadline to announce whether they will continue support Gonzalez through 1995.
Gonzalez wants the Catalans to support his proposed 1996 austerity budget to trim the deficit. In return, Gonzalez July 6 fulfilled a reported pledge to Pujol to announce - for the first time - that he would consider holding early elections in 1996. Gonzalez didn't rule out serving his full term through 1997, however.
Pujol might have pulled the plug sooner on Gonzalez, but the business-minded Catalans want to see Spain, which now holds the European Union's six-month rotating presidency, do a good job while it shapes the EU's agenda through 1995.
Some analysts see Monday's deadline as anticlimactic, with all the back-room horse trading already concluded. ''Everyone now expects elections in the first quarter of 1996. I think it would be a surprise if they were held at any other time,'' says Cesar Molinas, chief economist at FG stockbrokers in Madrid.
Since Gonzalez was reelected in 1993 to a fourth term, but without a majority in the 350-seat parliament, Pujol has been Spain's powerbroker, while avoiding a formal coalition with the Socialists.
This strength is the latest manifestation of a key political conflict in Spain, which has pitted advocates of a strong centrist government in Madrid against those who favor powerful regions. The 40-year dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco tried to stamp out regional identities like the Catalan language spoken in Catalonia. But during the transition to democracy, the 1978 Constitution paved the way for 17 semiautonomous regional governments.
There are 39 million Spaniards. Two of the better-known regions are northeastern Catalonia, with about 6 million people, and the northern Basque region, about 2 million strong. Their regional parties are the best known in parliament.
Since 1993, the deal between the Socialists, who have 159 seats, and the 17 Catalan deputies has been pretty straightforward. The Socialists got support for all important legislation, while Catalonia got more home-rule powers in education, health, and police.
But there have always been strains between the center-left Socialists and the Catalans, who wanted a more conservative economic policy nationally. Pujol also wants to retain dominance on his home turf of Catalonia. But in local elections on May 28, his coalition did not fare as well as he had hoped. Analysts say the party's dip at the polls was partly due to its support of the scandal-ridden Gonzalez.
Pujol is likely to hold regional elections in November, before his support erodes further. Analysts say Pujol wants to safely win his fifth term as president of the Catalan regional government before finally cutting ties to Gonzalez, and unleashing what could be a national election victory by the conservative Popular Party, which favors stronger control from Madrid.