Socialists' Narrow Win Signals Spain's Shift To Two-Party System

FOR Spain's young conservative leader, Jose Maria Aznar, Sunday's national elections were supposed to be what he called the "third phase" in the country's 16-year-old democracy: the arrival to power, by the ballot box, of the Spanish right after 11 years of uncontested Socialist rule.

Instead, the election results could be called step two-and-a-half.

The thin victory eked out by the Socialists of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez denies the party an absolute parliamentary majority for the first time since 1982, and it will give the Spanish parliament some meaning by requiring the Socialists to work with other parties to pass laws.

But the results, a clear disappointment for a right that thought it could capitalize on Spain's skidding economy and the Socialist Party's record of corruption, testify to the Spanish people's lingering hesitations about voting for a right wing that is still associated with 40 years of dictatorship under Gen. Francisco Franco.

Mr. Gonzalez, who had closed last week's campaign with thundering allusions to the Franco years - such as "Spain knows what it is to be governed by the right" - was the clear victor of Sunday's plebiscite. It was what the Madrid daily El Pais called a "very notable [personal] triumph," given the current atmosphere of economic and political crisis.

Gonzalez nevertheless acknowledged yesterday that the election results were a call for "change." Capitalizing on the Spanish people's still-strong identification of Socialist rule with the country's social, economic, and political progress of the last decade, the relieved leader told cheering supporters, "I have heard the people's message: They want a change within change."

For his part, Mr. Aznar said the elections signified "a new step in Spanish political life characterized by a much better equilibrium," and concluded before his supporters that "the Socialist hegemony has ended."

While not enough to place Aznar's Partido Popular (PP) in power, the results did allow Spain's right to put behind it a historical barrier of 25 percent popular support, a "victory" in itself that should allow Aznar to continue his party leadership.

Final results gave the Socialists 159 of a total 350 seats in the parliament, down from 175 won in the last elections in 1989. The PP won 141 seats, up from 107. The Communist-led United Left took 18 seats, up from 17, while the Catalan regional party CiU fell one seat to 17, and the Basque Nationalist Party kept its five seats.

IN terms of popular support, the Socialists' total was almost unchanged at 39 percent - down from 40 percent - while the PP jumped from 26 to 35 percent.

Significantly, the PP's impressive increase came more at the expense of the centrist CDS party of former Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez than of the Socialists. The CDS, which governed Spain with minority governments from the first post-Franco elections in 1977 until the Socialists' first victory in 1982, completed its gradual disappearance from the Spanish political scene by plummeting from 14 seats to none.

With the PP moving up to near equality with the Socialists, the elections marked Spain's continuing evolution to a classic two-party democracy, analysts say, dominated by major left and right parties leaning toward the center. Other significant lessons include:

* The reluctance of traditional Socialist voters - which polls had indicated made up the bulk of the numerous "undecideds" right up to the campaign's close - to switch to the right.

* The tenacity of the right's association with the Franco past.

* And the extent to which benefactors of Spain's social safety net, developed only over the last decade by the Socialists, determined the outcome. The Socialists' margin of victory came largely from the poor south, the party's base and the recipient of government subsidies; and from the growing elderly population, who feared losing their benefits under a conservative regime.

Gonzalez's victory will still require him to call on new political skills. In order to govern, the Socialists will need for the first time to develop alliances with other parties, either in a coalition government or as a minority government seeking parliamentary support on legislation.

Possibilities include a coalition with the Catalan CiU, which would certainly demand important ministerial portfolios before joining the Socialists; or with the Communist-led United Left (IU). The latter seems less likely, since Spain's economic downturn will require the new government to undertake austerity measures unpopular with IU. Such a left-tinted government could also push the PP and the Catalans to form a solid opposition, which Gonzalez would rather not encourage.

The Socialists could also choose to govern alone in the minority. But Gonzalez, who spoke of a government "open to renovation" during the campaign and who takes very seriously his role in shepherding Spain's evolving democracy, could be swayed by the argument that bringing in the nationalist Catalans would be stabilizing for Spain.

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