The Spanish prime minister, Mr Jose Maria Aznar, won a crushing victory in Sunday's general elections, the first absolute majority for a centre-right party in Madrid since the death of Franco. This is a remarkable achievement for a man often written off as a colourless nonentity, even after he replaced Mr Felipe Gonzalez's long-ruling Socialist Party (PSOE) with a minority Partido Popular (PP) government in 1996. It is also a clear indication of how much Spain has changed in the last 25 years.
The scale of Mr Aznar's victory surprised all observers. The PP increased its vote by 8 per cent and gained 27 seats which gives it a majority of eight in the parliament. More dramatically, the PP won a million more votes than the combined forces of the PSOE and the Communist-led United Left (IU). A late alliance between these two parties did not impress their electorates. More than three million left-wing voters stayed at home, in what appears to have been a belated reaction against the corruption and dirty war scandals that besmirched Mr Gonzalez's otherwise impressive administrations.
Mr Aznar also mounted a strong challenge to regional nationalists. He came close to displacing the Basque Nationalist Party as the dominant party in the Basque Country. He also made impressive inroads in Catalonia and Andalusia, the only other two of Spain's 17 autonomous regions where he does not enjoy a majority.
Over the last four years, Mr Aznar has shown that, far from being a crypto-Francoist or a ruthless Thatcherite, his policies do not threaten either Spain's hard-won democracy or its welfare state. He has recently reinvented himself as a social market radical in the mode of Mr Tony Blair, with whom he claims personal friendship, and has painted the Spanish Socialists as conservative dinosaurs. There is, however, a proviso. Mr Aznar was constrained in his last administration by his dependence on regional nationalist parties. While he has promised "to govern for all Spaniards", there is cause for concern that his new-found freedom of action will reveal him as a divisively right-wing ruler.
One of his spokesmen commented after the election that the PP would make tougher immigration law an absolute priority, a move which could ignite a tinderbox of racial tension in Andalusia and Catalonia. His hard stance during the ETA ceasefire, while accepted in most of Spain, is regarded as a sadly wasted opportunity by many Basques. The apparent tendency towards croney-ism and minor corruption under his last government may well accelerate with absolute power in parliamentary terms. His increasingly firm grip on much of the Spanish media, and his hostility towards those he regards as critical, raise legitimate fears about full freedom of expression.
It must be hoped that Mr Aznar's majority will give him the confidence to become a statesman of true vision, capable of resolving old conflicts like the Basque question, and meeting new challenges like those of immigration. He has the fair wind of a fast-growing economy and a good record in the EU to give room for generous and necessary flexibility.