Regional Parties Plan to Capitalize on Gran Oportunidad

WHEN a prominent congressional candidate for the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) was asked on a recent radio news program whether his party was closer to Spain's Socialists or conservatives, his coy response was that he and his party "agree with Mr. Felipe Aznar."

The answer is an amalgam of the names of Spain's rival party leaders - Spain's Socialist President Felipe Gonzalez and Jose Maria Aznar, head of the conservative Partido Popular (PP). It's also a foretaste of the tack Spain's powerful regional parties are likely to take if, as expected, a weak front finisher in Sunday's election is forced to look for coalition backing to elect a new president and name a government.

During a visit to Madrid Wednesday, Catalan regional president Jordi Pujol said roughly the same thing as his Basque colleague, only rather less nicely: "A part of [us] rejects strongly a pact with PP, but another [part] also rejects a pact with the [Socialists]."

If the political bargaining starts on Monday as expected, the Basques and the Catalans are going to play hard to get - and the price of engagement could be high.

"The Basques," whose aging industrial region is hurting, "might make budgetary demands," says one Spanish diplomat, "while the Catalans' will be more political."

While neither PNV nor the Catalan party, CiU, is revealing strategy yet, it is widely assumed that Mr. Pujol would insist on the same fiscal co-responsibility for his region that the Basque country already enjoys. And both parties would require the PP to adopt a policy more favorable to the devolution of power to the regions before they would join it.

Both the PNV and CiU are right of center. But contrary to political ideology, both parties would find it easier to work with the Socialists, analysts here say. Regionalists are more comfortable with the Socialists' easier acceptance of regional power, and wary of the right's traditional support for strong centralized government.

Evidence of this is seen in the Basque country, where the regional government is already a PNV-Socialist coalition.

Some observers anticipate that the regionalists' demands might end up being too high for either the conservatives or the Socialists, which could ultimately leave them out in the cold. But the regionalists are unlikely to let what the Catalans are calling "La Gran Oportunitad" slip by.

"Both the Basques and the Catalans are bargainers," says political scientist Ramon Cotarelo. "They're pragmatic enough to pull out of the situation what they can."

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