A reluctant but charismatic leader betrays all signs of weariness


WHEN Felipe Gonzalez was a young labour lawyer, returning from the 1974 congress of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) in France, he was questioned by an officer of Franco's Guardia Civil at a border check point.

The PSOE was still illegal, and, would remain so until several months after Franco's death in 1975. Gonzalez, backed by a group of young tigers from his native Seville, in alliance with a faction of equally dynamic Basques, had just wrested the party leadership from the old men who had kept it alive in exile since the Civil War.

The new leadership was firmly based in "the interior", and Gonzalez, under the nom de guerre of "Isidoro", was helping it replace "the Communist Party as the most significant underground opposition force to the old dictator. The frontier interrogation was affable, however, and at its close the sergeant handed him a cigar.

"Give it back to me," he said, "when you are President of Spain."

Just eight years later, Gonzalez could return the favour, having persuaded millions of non socialist voters, like the sergeant, that the PSOE was the best bet for the future of Spain. Thirteen more years down the road, having won four elections in a row, by decreasing margins, Gonzalez faces his toughest test yet. Next Sunday, the voters will decide whether that the PSOE is still the best option. All opinion polls put the right wing Partido Popular, led by the uncharismatic but dogged Jose Maria Aznar, well ahead.

Gonzalez is a reluctant candidate this time round, and was only persuaded to stand again at the last minute. With the departure of his trusted lieutenant, Javier Solana, to the post of Secretary General of Nato last year, there was no other convincing successor, though Josep Borrell, currently Minister for Public Works will be one to watch if Gonzalez loses these elections.

Many other once bright contenders have sunk under the wave of scandals which have swept over the PSOE in recent years. The scandals range from fraudulent party fund raising scams, through massive personal embezzlement by PSOE officials, to allegations that Gonzalez was aware of the organisation of death squads which killed 27 people in a dirty, war against the Basque terrorist organisation ETA in the 1980s.

For many Spaniards, Gonzalez has become "Senor X", the sinister mastermind of the dirty war band the centre of a huge web of greed and patronage. This image has been partly created by the sensationalist but sometimes embarrassingly accurate campaigning journalism of El Mundo.

The editor of this newspaper, Pedro J. Ramirez, originally a PSOE supporter, now holds that only a transfer of power to another party, albeit of the right, can purge Spain of corruption. Less vitriolic observers point out that the Partido Popular has not itself been exempt from scandal, and that Ramirez's best witnesses are an unsavoury combination of disgraced bankers and former policemen convicted of murder.

There is no doubt, however, that Gonzalez has willingly presided over a society whose urge to modernise at all costs has steamrolled over common decency as often as it has cut through archaic economic practices. The word pelotazo - literally "a kick in the balls" - has come to epitomise the get rich quick culture with which the PSOE has replaced the stuffy autocracy of Francoism.

This is a far cry from the idealism which once motivated the young Gonzalez, son of a small diary farmer, who still says that his ideal life would be to spend his days watching over cattle in the sleepy Andalusian countryside.

Born in 1942, and married in his 20s to Carmen Romero, herself a charismatic PSOE figure, Gonzalez and his Seville comrades considered themselves "close to Che Guevara" according to friends.

In 1979, seeing that the PSOE's continued commitment to Marxism was damaging electorally, he asked the party to drop its radical baggage When he failed, he resigned the leadership, only to be re elected, minus Marxism, at a special congress months later.

Elected with a big majority in 1982, he moved quickly to restructure the economy, at the eventual cost of his alliance with the Socialist trade union. He did a U turn on Nato, and ditched his republican background to become a close confidante of King Juan Carlos.

Two years ago he was offered the Presidency of the European Commission. At home, his personal magnetism is still a factor to be reckoned with. He will attract personal sympathy from the murder of two close friends by ETA in the last month. But whether charisma and sympathy can outweigh his weariness of politics, and the Spanish electorate's weariness of the PSOE, remains to be seen.