Spain's general elections next Sunday are likely to be the most significant since Mr Felipe Gonzalez's Socialist Party (PSOE) swept to government with an ample majority 14 years ago. Mr Gonzalez's 1982 victory marked the accession to power of those who had actively opposed Franco's dictatorship, and the demise of the architects of the transition from Francoism to democracy. The latter, mainly former Francoists who engineered reform from within the regime, had been led by the adroit Mr Adolfo Suarez.
Skilful as Mr Suarez was, he was unable to prevent the collapse of his artificially created party into tired warring factions, most of which clearly belonged to the past. Mr Gonzalez and his colleagues, in sharp contrast, were young, fresh and forward looking. Today the picture is, in many respects, reversed. Gonzalez and his party look middle aged and weary, and they are tainted by an extraordinary series of scandals, ranging from financial corruption to the organisation of illegal death squads.
The outgoing PSOE administration is a minority government, elected against the odds in 1993, probably only because Spaniards still feared the right more than they were disenchanted with the left. It should be an easy election for the Opposition to win. The main contender is Mr Jose Maria Aznar's Partido Popular (PP), a reconstituted right wing party which has made great efforts to shake off any overt vestiges of Francoist nostalgia. The PP also appeals to young people, to whom the PSOE has become, ironically enough, the Establishment party; and while the PP does not have a feminist agenda, many Spanish women identify with the high profile given to their, gender among its candidates. Meanwhile the traditional and "new" left, grouped under communist leadership in Izquierda Unida (IU), does not seem capable of making major inroads into PSOE's working class or intellectual supporters. So Mr Aznar should, therefore, romp home next Sunday, and the opinion polls give him a strong lead, though not necessarily an absolute majority. But three major hurdles could still bring him down.
The first is his own manifest of lack of charisma, as a senior statesman were very evident when he led last Monday's enormous anti terrorist demonstration in Madrid. The second is the resurgence of ETA's terrorist campaign for Basque independence, in the weeks leading up to the poll. Much as they deplore the murders, many Spaniards fear that the harsh measures Mr Aznar proposes could propel the spiral of violence into full scale civil conflict.
The third hurdle, linked to the second, is the fear that the new smart suits of Mr Aznar's party disguise the old uniforms of Francoist autocracy. The PSOE can be expected to play this card very hard in the days that remain. In the heightened tension created by Basque violence, it is just possible that Mr Gonzalez may be able to persuade the Spanish voters, at the last moment, to opt for the devil they know.