SEIZING on the disarray of their opponents, the pragmatic Socialists ruling Spain since 1982 have called snap elections that are expected to strengthen their hand in the application of austerity measures later this year. ``Vote now and pay later,'' the conservative newspaper ABC commented sarcastically in its Sunday edition, despite Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez M'arquez's assurances that ``the outlook for the Spanish economy remains very good'' and that only a fine tuning was in the offing.
The ruling Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) is expected to emerge with a clear majority in parliament for the third consecutive time. The only opposition grouping likely to show gains, a government-commissioned survey says, is the communist-led United Left coalition.
The largest opposition party, the conservative Popular Party, suffers from internal divisions. Despite ample indications that early elections were on the way, it was unable to decide on a candidate to head its ticket until the last minute.
Manuel Fraga, a one-time minister during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who remains the towering figure of the Spanish right, finally stepped in to impose his own choice. He opted for Jos'e-Maria Aznar, a fiery speaker who heads the regional government of Castile-Leon. Mr. Aznar was confirmed as a candidate on Monday.
The moderate Democratic and Social Center Party (CDS), which now holds 19 seats in parliament, has not managed to persuade voters it is much more than a vehicle for the ambitions of former prime minister Adolfo Su'arez, and will do well to maintain its current strength.
Although electioneering is not due to begin until Oct. 10, CDS general secretary Jose-Ram'on Caso opened fire over the weekend, charging that the Socialists were preparing ``a campaign designed to fool the electorate.''
The trade unions were also quick to attack. One press release alleged that the government, pursuing the neo-liberal, Thatcherite policies that have allowed record business profits in recent years, intended to ``once again put the squeeze on those who can least afford it.''
In announcing general elections for Oct. 29, eight months early, Prime Minister Gonz'alez admitted last Friday there was an urgent need to restrain both private and public spending, although he shied away from the terms ``austerity package'' or ``readjustment'' that have been seen frequently in the press.
As Gonz'alez pointed out in a news conference last Friday, consumption is growing at a staggering 9 percent annually, well ahead of Spain's economic growth rate of around 5 percent. ``One can't go on consuming more than one produces for very long,'' he said.