SPANISH Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, who pulled off a squeaker in national elections last June to win a fourth term in office, may now be wishing that vote had been less favorable.
At least then he might be enjoying the warm sun of Spain's Costa del Sol rather than suffering the political heat of the country's worst scandal-crisis in post-Franco democracy.
Mr. Gonzalez, who brought Spain's Socialists to power in 1981, is set to answer questions before parliament May 11concerning a series of corruption scandals that have forced the resignations of several high-profile Socialists - including two ministers and several key parliamentarians - and led to the jailing of a past governor of the Bank of Spain and the former director of the Madrid stock exchange.
The crisis was touched off last month by the disappearance of former Civil Guard (national police) Chief Luis Roldan after he was sought for questioning on suspected illegal tax and other financial gains. As hundreds of Spanish law enforcement officials have pressed an all-out search for him, Mr. Roldan has continued to issue from hiding - in Spain, Portugal, France, and maybe South America - accusations and threats of revelations about other high officials.
``The whole affair has left Spain in an atmosphere of depression,'' says Ramon Cotarelo, a political scientist at the University of Madrid.
More broadly, Spain's crisis - coming as it does amid political recomposition in Italy and Greece's continuing estrangement from the European Union over issues touching the former Yugoslavia - has some observers painting a long-term view of an introspective European south unable to counterbalance the European Union's economic and political power shift northward.
The causes for Spain's depression are twofold, Mr. Cotarelo says: First, the public realization that a year after Gonzalez was reelected despite deep concern over Socialist corruption, nothing has been done to clean things up; and second, the public's resignation to the idea that it has little alternative to the Socialist leader.
A year after elections marked by charges of illegal campaign financing by the Socialists, ``the government hasn't been able to do anything about corruption, it's clear,'' Cotarelo says. But what has shifted the public from its initial ``fury'' over the scandals to disheartened disgust, he adds, is that, ``while everyone knows the Socialists and their government are at the end of their road, they look around and don't find a viable alternative.''
A number of Spanish analysts say that if the country's conservative opposition party, Partido Popular (PP), had come out with concrete proposals for correcting the corruption, they might have succeeded in bringing down Gonzalez. ``Instead they left the government the time to recover and take the initiative,'' Cotarelo says, ``and now they've lost the upper hand.''
That view is hotly contested by PP leaders, who claim it is more a Socialist line than the public appraisal.
``We have a team, something Mr. Gonzalez no longer has, that is ready to get Spain moving on the right track again,'' says Jose-Maria Robles, a PP member of parliament and foreign relations secretary. While acknowledging that none of the scandals has touched the prime minister personally, Mr. Robles adds, ``It is the essence of democracy for Mr. Gonzalez to accept his responsibility for the deterioration in his government and resign.''
Government remains safe
PP leaders recognize, however, that Gonzalez and his minority government are safe as long as the Basque and Catalan nationalist parties continue to pledge their support. ``[Catalan party leader Jordi] Pujol has a strong political interest in holding the government's fall or survival in his hands,'' Robles says. But that situation could change, observers acknowledge, depending on results in
Andalucs regional elections and the vote for the European Parliament on June 12.
``If the Socialists lose their governing position in their stronghold of Andalucia, or the results in the European elections are disastrous, the regional parties might decide it's time to pull the plug, and we could face new elections next fall,'' says a Madrid business analyst.
If the Socialists do lose the regional elections in Andalucia - a prospect that still appears unlikely - it will be as much the result of the economic stagnation the country is suffering as of the scandals crisis. Like other regions of Spain, Andalucia has been hit by massive plant closings and layoffs - a reality Gonzalez confronted in Sevilla on May 6, where he opened the June election campaign to rioting workers (and unemployed ).
Economists say they see the first signs of a climb up out of recession - job losses, for example, which stood at a staggering 2,000 a day in January, are now down to about 100 a day, and the trade balance is expected to record a surplus for the first time since 1986. But whether Gonzalez can convince the voting public of a coming upturn is another question. ``He's been saying for the past year that the worst was over, just as he pledged to cut out the corruption,'' Cotarelo says. ``People are asking why they should put their trust in Gonzalez one more time.''