Suarez regime talks to cool regional differences

In a conciliatory move that also help consolidate its political power the Spanish government has held a round of multiparty talks aimed at resolving the country's pressing regional problems.

Regional forces are agitating for home-rule powers in the south in Andalusia, the country's largest and most populous region, and in the Basque country in the northwest.

The new initiative, which has involved top-level negotiations with the country's main regional groups as well as with the leading national parties (the Socialists, Communists), has had a three-pronged purpose:

* To ensure the ruling Democratic Center Union party (UCD) a working majority in parliament. Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez Gonzalez has furthered this goal by establishing a pact with deputies from Catalonia in the northeast and promising to make concessions to Andalusia. The immediate result: a comfortable majority for the government on parliament's Sept. 16 confidence vote.

* To drive a wedge between the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and radical and separatist groups in the Basque region. This move was considered necessary because of the virtual paralysis in the devolution of powers to the region since the PNV approved a Basque autonomy statute last year and because of the continued high level of political violence in the region spearheaded by ETA, the Basque separatist organization. As a protest at government contacts with the PNV, militant Basque separatists launched a new campaign of violence, killing nine people in just over one week.

* To improve relations with the other national parties. Negatiations with the Socialitsts, the second-largest political party in the country, represented a major political development. Only last May the Socialists presented a motion of censure against the government. And on repeated occasions this year Felipe Gonzalez Marques, the Socialist Party leader, has said that he is not prepared to return to the consensus politics that were the hallmark of the early years of Spain's transition to a democracy.

Nonetheless, on the key issue of regionalism, the Socialists are just as aware as the ruling UCD that they stand as much to lose from the rising popularity of the regional parties. This was evident early this year when the UCD and the Socialists -- and to a lesser extent the Communists -- lost votes to regional parties in regional elections in Andalusia, the Basque country and Catalonia. Indeed, apart from the central Meseta, in all of the peripheral regions of Spain (Catalonia, Andalusia, the Basque country) it is now the regional and not the national parties that have majority support.

Against this background, the outcome of the negotiations has been an all-party agreement to grant Andalusia the same degree of regional autonomy (including the right to eventually elect its own parliament) as that previously reserved by the government for the Basque country and Catalonia.

Meanwhile, it was also agreed that the transfer of powers to the Basque region should be speeded up.

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