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Spain's popular premier faces bitter criticism at party congress

The Jan. 15 announcement that the United States has agreed to withdraw its wing of F-16 fighter bombers from the air base at Torrej'on, just outside Madrid, could not have come at a better time for Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez. Widely hailed in Spain as a diplomatic victory for Mr. Gonz'alez, the US-Spanish agreement came just a week before the opening of the 31st Congress of Spain's ruling political party, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party. Many Spaniards think the timing of this accord was not entirely accidental, but in any case Gonz'alez will be seen today at Madrid's Palacio de Congresos as the man who faced down the US and rid his country of an intrusive military presence.

The new accord will also help Gonz'alez head off a possible outburst of anti-Americanism among militants at the congress.

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Heading off trouble is one of Gonz'alez's major goals at the meeting. What he would like is a peaceful gathering that will ratify what the leadership puts before it and go home. There is no doubt that Gonz'alez commands majority support among the delegates. He has governed Spain for more than five years, and most of the delegates are office holders or otherwise dependent on the government.

But the days when Spanish socialists met in exile or in hiding, sang the International, and proclaimed party solidarity are long gone. Gonz'alez and his government face bitter criticism from within the ranks of their own socialist comrades.

The most eloquent - and serious - statement of opposition to Gonz'alez will be the absence from the congress of Nicolas Redondo, head of the Union General de Trabajadores (UGT), the big labor union that up until five years ago was the Socialist Party's alter ego. Mr. Redondo, a former metal worker with little formal education, was once close to Gonz'alez. Now he feels betrayed. ``There is a deep split between the government and the union movement,'' he says.

Just last week, Redondo launched a bitter attack on the government for failing to deal with unemployment, which has risen from 14 percent in 1982 to 21 percent today. Organized labor also objects to the government's choice of wage restraint in its fight against inflation.

The rupture with the UGT is the most worrying problem facing the Socialist Party. Rather than disrupt the congress with wrangling, though, Redondo and Gonz'alez agreed on a proposal, to be voted on at the congress. It calls for top union and party leaders to meet later this year to iron out their differences.

Old militants and trade unionists see Gonz'alez as having abandoned traditional socialist egalitarian goals. They disdain the young ``technocrats'' Gonz'alez has drawn into his administration. In a Socialist Workers Party Government, they ask, where are the workers?

Gonz'alez can expect more muted opposition from other elements of the party constituency:

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From within the ranks of young professionals and office holders, who would like to see the party devote more energy to social concerns and democracy within its own camp.

From regional opposition leaders, such as Basque socialist Ricardo Garcia Damborenea, who are calling for a return to socialist principles.

From women, who make up 16 percent of the party but only 6.6 percent of the delegates. One proposal up for a vote is to give women an agreed-on percentage of all party jobs.

But the key issue at the congress remains the economy. In what is expected to be a two-hour presentation, Gonz'alez will defend his economic policies, arguing that tough reforms are bearing fruit. In 1987, he points out, Spain's economy grew at a torrid 4.5 percent rate, when France and Germany scarcely exceeded 1 percent.

Most Spanish bankers and businessmen approve of the way the Gonz'alez government runs the economy, a fact not lost on union members and socialists.

But Gonz'alez says his critics are out of step with the realities of governing a modern industrial state, which has to compete with other developed economies. Private initiative, not expanding the public sector, he says, is the only effective way to deal with unemployment.

Gonz'alez's strongest defense is what he terms ``the clamorous absence of alternatives'' to his policies. He derides his critics' lack of ``programmatic'' proposals, and accuses opposition parties of having ``entrenched themselves in confusion and demagogy as a consequence of their incapacity for constructive criticism.''

Certainly Spain's communist and right-wing opposition stirs little real enthusiasm. Today's congress may confirm what some claim to know, that Gonz'alez has a stature within and outside Spain that no figure presently on the political scene can match.

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