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Socialist victory in Spain halts leftist decline in Europe

Spain's Socialist Party has scored again by winning a second term in office with an absolute majority. The Socialist victory Sunday halted the recent downward trend of other European parties of the left. The triumph is a reflection of the personal pull of Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez, as well as a brightening of Spain's economic prospects in the last few months. The results confirm the party's strong backing, even among sectors of the working class that have been hard hit by economic austerity and industrial cutbacks.

The Socialists nevertheless dropped almost four points from the 48 percent they scored in their 1982 landslide victory. Vice-Premier Alfonso Guerra brushed off any comment of this year's decline by saying the 1982 results were ``unusually high.'' But the Socialists lost seats to both the leftist coalition headed by the Communist Party and to the center party of former Premier Adolfo Suarez. The Socialists will hold 184 of the 350 seats in parliament, down from the 202 seats they won four years ago.

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Although still firmly in the majority, the Socialist Party will have to bear more dissident voices in parliament during the next term.

The election results point mainly to a reorganization of forces on the center and right. Mr. Suarez's Democratic and Social Center party jumped ahead from two to 19 seats while the main right-wing opposition group, the Popular Coalition, led by Manuel Fraga, lost only one seat, slipping to 105. Many political observers believe that Mr. Fraga's party, after failing to gain a majority in the four elections since Spain became a democracy 10 years ago has hit a peak and cannot obtain the middle-of-the-road vote to increase its support.

Suarez's shift to the center-left seems to follow a clever strategy to remain on the fringes of the Socialist party platform. He has already gained back some of the center votes ``loaned'' to the Socialists in 1982.

The total failure of Catalan candidate Miquel Roca to launch a national party similar to his strong regional Catalan party apparently leaves the stage free for a fight between Suarez and Fraga for the future leadership of a center-right alternative to the Socialists.

Meanwhile, a Communist-led coalition promises to sit to the left of the Socialists like a bad conscience. Picking up votes from Socialists disillusioned with their party's loss of leftist ideology, the coalition managed to double -- from four to eight -- the Communist-held seats.

The hard nut to crack in the Spanish political scene -- the regionalist parties -- remains. Although the Socialists maintained a lead in Catalonia, the Catalan Convergence and Union has picked up more seats nationally, almost tying with Adolfo Suarez for third place.

However, the real surprise comes with a surge ahead for Herri Batasuna, the radical Basque party close to the terrorist organization Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA). It now holds almost as many seats as the establishment Basque Nationalist Party. Regional President Jos'e Antonio Ardanza, of the moderate nationalist party, expressed concern that ``the Basque country is becoming radicalized.''

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As parties now try to build up stable positions in the political scene, they will continue to worry about the Socialists' holding power for too long. Socialist enthusiasts simply point to the Swedish example of 22 years of Social Democrat rule. Felipe Gonz'alez has often said his project to transform Spain would take 20 years at least.

However, Spain hardly follows the Swedish example. The need for consensus in the early years of the transition to democracy reduced the scope of parties to a few main ones tightly controlled from the top.

A number of political analysts believe that there should be a strong challenger to the Socialists and that there should be electoral reform in order for democracy to become firmly established and safeguarded.

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