Scandals Push Spaniards To End Long Socialist Rule

Gonzalez led nation into EU after Franco's dictatorship, but a 'dirty war' angers voters

IN the past three general elections, Anselmo Molina has cast his vote for the Socialist Party of Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, but when he goes to the polls this time on March 3, he'll be marking his ballot for the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP).

''I grew up in a small farming town in Andalucia, the same region Gonzalez is from,'' says the apartment handyman in Madrid. ''The Socialists were always the good guys. They did a lot for Spain, and economically, we're better off than ever before.

''But the corruption is just endless.... Now I'm fed up,'' he says.

According to opinion polls, so are the majority of Spaniards after 13 years of a tired Socialist government deeply tainted by a series of scandals.

Many people with modest roots, like Mr. Molina, say that Socialist policies helped them get a fresh start in Spain. Following his landslide election victory in 1982, Mr. Gonzalez and his Socialist team turned the once-sleepy country, which was just emerging from 40 years of Gen. Francisco Franco's fascist dictatorship, into a modern, vibrant, and fully democratic nation.

They brought Spain into the European Union in 1986, embraced monetary policies that triggered a boom, and turned the country into the EU's star economic performer in the late 1980s. Later Spain basked in the glow of that banner year of 1992 when Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympic Games and the Expo World's Fair was staged in Seville.

But then it all began to sour as the financial and political scandals mounted up:

* The Bank of Spain's former governor, Mariano Rubio, was charged with tax fraud and manipulating share prices.

* The country's first civilian chief of the paramilitary Civil Guard, Luis Roldan, was arrested last March in Laos, where he fled after being accused of embezzlement and bribery.

* Twenty-three people were put on trial for using front companies to illegally fund the Socialist Party campaign war chest in the late 1980s.

* Deputy Prime Minister Narcis Serra and the defense minister were forced to resign after it was discovered the intelligence services had intercepted calls from the cellular phones of leading Spaniards, including King Juan Carlos.

But still more damaging has been the so-called GAL case, involving an undercover death squad that targeted Spanish Basque terrorists hiding in France in the mid-1980s. The terrorist group ETA - the acronym stands for Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque language - has been demanding self-determination for their region since the 1960s.

Fourteen former police and government officials were indicted last April for involvement in the antiterrorist operation, including former Interior Minister Jose Barrionuevo, a close friend of Gonzalez who is running for a parliamentary seat in elections.

GAL, the Spanish-language acronym for Antiterrorist Liberation Groups, killed 27 people in a ''dirty war'' against ETA. Seven of its victims had nothing to do with the terrorists, investigators say.

Because of alleged Socialist government involvement in GAL, the Catalonian nationalists last July abandoned their parliamentary power-sharing agreement with the Socialists, forcing Gonzalez to call elections more than a year early.

The prime minister himself admitted he did not really want to run for reelection a fourth time, but when his designated successor, Foreign Minister Javier Solana, accepted an offer to head NATO, Gonzalez reluctantly agreed to go before the voters one more time.

''Everyone, of course, was aware of the other scandals, but the GAL case, with its almost daily revelations in the press, is what has made corruption the main issue in this election,'' says Juan Diez-Nicolas, a sociology professor at a Madrid university who also heads a public-opinion polling firm.

''Our surveys show a significant lead for the Popular Party, and that's been almost constant since October, indicating people have long made up their minds and are ready for a change,'' he says.

ACCORDING to a recent poll published in the prestigious daily El Pais, the PP will garner 42 percent of the vote against 33 percent for the Socialists, and could obtain an absolute majority in the 350-seat parliament. The third political force in the country, the communist-led United Left, is tipped to win 12 percent.

The Popular Party is headed by Jose Maria Aznar, a former tax inspector. He has led the party since 1989, when he was plucked from obscurity as the president of the Castilla-Leon region by PP big shots desperate to give the party a fresher and more centrist image.

In that, Mr. Aznar largely succeeded.

As in past campaigns, the Socialists have used scare tactics to try to convince voters that a PP government would mean a return to the darkness of the right-wing, Franco-like past.

''But this time it isn't working,'' says Mr. Diez-Nicolas. ''People either don't believe it, or are so desperate for change that they don't care.''

In his campaign speeches around Spain, Aznar promises to reduce the country's 22 percent unemployment rate - EU's highest - cut taxes and the budget deficit, privatize state-owned industries, and slash obligatory military service from nine months to six.

''Give me your vote,'' he appealed to a crowd filling a bull-fighting ring in the southwestern city of Murcia over the weekend, ''so we can have an ample and clear majority in parliament to get this country moving again.''

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