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Spain's Felipe Gonz'alez and the Socialists find their popularity losing steam

With a year to go before general elections, Spain's ruling Socialist Party seems to be running out of steam. The great expectations raised by having a left-wing government in power for the first time in more than 40 years have faded. What is more, the disenchantment has spread alarmingly over the last few months both outside and inside the ruling party.

Although the Cabinet shuffle in early July has confirmed the Socialist government's move to the right, the lackluster performance of Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez's team of ministers in preserving jobs and purchasing power has caused widespread discontent.

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Bitter controversy between the government and the country's largest union, the Socialist-controlled Uni'on General de Trabajadores (UGT), over a pension plan reform has opened a serious breach among party supporters. Opinion polls still put the Socialist Party and Mr. Gonz'alez in the lead, but he has more ground to gain to ensure a clear majority in next year's elections. Added to all this, the prime minister's image of being a confident, new-style leader seems to be crumbling.

Gonz'alez had seemed virtually invulnerable. He was popular even among non-Socialists. Now he is drawing criticism.

What caused the greatest uproar was his sudden decision to take his family for a short cruise aboard the Navy yacht Azor, long associated with Gen. Francisco Franco's fishing holidays.

Reaction was emotional and immediate. Spanish newspapers editorialized that the Gonz'alez family's cruise at state expense was a slap in the face of those who had to put up with economic austerity. It seemed even more a blunder for Gonz'alez, a symbol of the anti-Franco generation, to get mixed up with a symbol of the past dictatorship.

Curiously, the incident of the Azor followed a meeting with opposition leader Manuel Fraga in which Gonz'alez pledged ``to forget the past in political debate.''

``How can citizens forget Fraga's past [he served as a Cabinet minister under Franco] when it comes time to vote? And how can people forget Felipe Gonz'alez at the head of an anti-NATO demonstration before coming to power. . . . Or how can you ask voters to forget that the Socialists promised 800,000 new jobs?'' asked one editorial.

The issue of new jobs, one of the Socialists' few concrete electoral promises, has proved to be the major failure of the Gonz'alez government, which came to power in late 1982. More than 20 percent of the active population is unemployed, the highest rate for Western Europe. But the Socialists have not managed to create new jobs. In fact, one senior government official even says they may well show a negative balance of 150,000 fewer jobs by the end of their four-year mandate.

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While stringent measures have improved Spain's economic outlook in terms of lower inflation and a better balance of payments, moves to trim state pension costs and to sell off profitmaking state-owned companies in the tourism sector have made the left unpopular.

Last month's naming of Carlos Solchaga to replace Finance Minister Miguel Boyer, mastermind of the austerity program, leaves no doubt that the government intends to continue along the same tough lines. As industry minister, Mr. Solchaga was responsible for carrying out painful and violently-contested cutbacks in shipyards and steel mills.

``I don't say that the government has a reactionary policy, but in some cases it coincides with that of Reagan,'' said Nicolas Redondo, leader of the UGT. Mr. Redondo, a Socialist member of parliament, was one of the men responsible for bringing the moderate Gonz'alez into the party leadership 11 years ago.

Controversy over the recently approved pension reform has perhaps done the government the most damage. Following that government-union battle, Redondo warned: ``We run the risk of winning the battle in the economic field and losing in the social and political fields.''

There were also stirrings in the Socialist Party over Francisco Ordoez's replacing Foreign Minister Fernando Mor'an, who had gained much credit for the government by completing negotiations for Spain's entry to the European Community.

The replacement of Mr. Mor'an, whose doubts about NATO were well known, with the pro-alliance Mr. Ordoez was interpreted as a sure sign of the government's Westward swing and its preparation for a pro-NATO campaign. A referendum on whether to stay in NATO is to be held early in 1986.

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