Socialist pas de deux fails to hide party rifts

 

A Spanish experiment in double-headed leadership, with one man officially leading the Socialist Party and another preparing to top the ticket for the next general elections, has failed because the personalities could not work together or agree on the division of power.

However, a complete split in the Partido Socialista de Obrero Espanol (PSOE) was averted this weekend after an emergency meeting in Madrid of its federal committee. The risk of a dramatic split brought back memories of a similar rift in 1982 in the ranks of the Centre Democratic Union (UCD), the party which had brought Spain to post-Franco democracy, which totally disintegrated when its leader, Mr Adolfo Suarez, stepped down and UCD members failed to win any seats in the elections of that year.

The Socialists, who governed the country for almost 14 years, were thrown into disarray 18 months ago when their leader, Mr Felipe Gonzalez (56), stepped down to make way for a new generation. Although allegations of economic and political corruption had marred the latter years of Mr Gonzalez' term in office, his charismatic personality and tough hand had prevented the emergence of an obvious heir apparent. Eventually Mr Joaquin Almunia, a pleasant but unexciting Basque socialist, was chosen as the Gonzalez successor by the party congress.

But last April Mr Almunia announced that he was calling primary elections to give Socialist party members the chance to vote and choose their candidate to lead them on an elections ticket. It was the first time such an experiment had been tried in Spain; until then such decisions had been taken by the party hierarchy. Despite predictions that Mr Almunia would be confirmed in his post, and despite the strong support of Mr Gonzalez and other veteran Socialists (including the NATO Secretary-General, Mr Javier Solana), Mr Almunia was defeated by the former public works minister, Mr Josep Borrell.

Following his defeat, Mr Almunia presented his resignation but it was refused, and the party's federal committee decided the two men should run together, a decision described as a recipe for disaster by many observers.

It was agreed that Mr Borrell would act as leader of the opposition in parliament, while Mr Almunia would continue to run the party and act as chairman of the parliamentary group. But their differences soon emerged. Mr Borrell's first appearance as opposition leader in the State of the Nation debate was uninspiring and he later described Mr Almunia as his collaborator in a public meeting.

Mr Almunia, on the other hand, criticised Mr Borrell for his habit of "talking about everything at any moment" without considering the repercussions. By the beginning of this month it had become apparent that open war had broken out between the two factions and serious steps had to be taken to bring peace.

While some people called for an extraordinary party congress to decide on the outcome, the leaders were reluctant to take such a dramatic step. Mr Gonzalez, after unsuccessfully working behind the scenes to solve the problem, eventually called the two men in to see him separately.

At this weekend's emergency meeting, the 234-man federal committee forced both men to cede ground and reach a compromise. They came under considerable pressure from party veterans. Mr Juan Carlos Rodriguez Ibarra, president of the autonomous community of Extremadura, threatened them with a vote of censure and warned that if they forced an extraordinary party congress they could both be voted out of power.

After many hours of bitter disagreement, an accord was reached which gave Mr Borrell the parliamentary autonomy he had sought, leaving Mr Almunia in charge of party affairs.