Aznar gains majority in Spanish elections


Spain's centre-right minority government was returned to a second term with an absolute majority in yesterday's general elections, a much better result for Mr Jose Maria Aznar's Partido Popular (PP) than opinion polls had suggested.

Mr Aznar's clear victory reverses recent EU trends which have seen centre-left governments elected in Britain, France and Germany. It also represents a humiliating defeat for the Socialist Party (PSOE), which lost nearly two million votes and 16 seats, with 98 per cent of the votes counted.

The PSOE's general secretary and prime ministerial candidate, Mr Joaquin Almunia, conceded defeat and resigned his own position.

The PP took 183 seats, comfortably ahead of the 176 required to dominate Spain's lower house, and 27 more than Mr Aznar won in the 1996 elections. On that occasion he displaced the long-ruling Socialist leader, Mr Felipe Gonzalez, but needed the support of regional nationalist parties to govern.

Mr Aznar is the first right-of-centre leader to win an absolute majority since Spanish democracy was re-established in the late 1970s. He has benefitted electorally from a strong economy, a competent record, and, in recent months, from the insecurity generated by a new Basque separatist terror campaign by ETA which drove the indecisive to the strongly law-and-order PP. Mr Aznar's majority will enable him to implement policies which his previous dependence on nationalist parties made impossible. It is unlikely that this new freedom will reverse his shift to the centre in economic terms. Despite his right-wing past, Mr Aznar now identifies much more closely with the social market policies of Mr Tony Blair than with the monetarist views of Baroness Thatcher.

However, the Socialists are not alone in fearing that Mr Aznar and the PP might be tempted to use another four years in government to consolidate an unhealthy monopoly in control of the media and privatised utilities.

Mr Aznar's greatly increased strength is most likely to be felt in an attempt to halt or even roll back Spain's progress towards federalism. This is likely to meet strong opposition from his former Catalan allies, and from Galicia where local nationalists have also done well. It will put him on a potentially dangerous collision course with moderate Basque nationalists, who are now committed to eventual independence.

In the Basque Country, fears that calls for "active abstention" by ETA's political wing, Euskal Herritarrok, would lead to violence proved groundless. The moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which has been ostracised by both the PP and PSOE because of its role in the Basque peace process, has benefitted from that abstention and increased its representation.

Mr Almunia, who replaced the very popular Mr Gonzalez as party leader in 1997, has evidently failed to convince the Spanish electorate that he has effectively renovated the party, which had suffered a series of corruption and dirty war scandals under Mr Gonzalez. A late decision to agree a common programme with the communist-led United Left (IU) did not capture the imagination of the voters.

The United Left, also under new leadership, has done even worse than the PSOE, plummeting from 21 to eight seats. A dull campaign and bright weather yesterday both contributed to a drop in participation, of which the left alliance appears to be the main victim.