WHENEVER Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez gets into political trouble, he looks to Barcelona, the host of the 1992 Olympics and now the key to his future because of a wily and powerful party boss: Jordi Pujol.
Mr. Pujol, leader of Catalonia's nationalist Convergence and Union party, has steadfastly stood by Mr. Gonzalez's minority government over the past two years, ensuring the Socialists a working majority in parliament despite one political scandal after another. Until now.
When reports emerged last month that Spain's military intelligence unit, CESID, had listened in on the mobile-phone calls of King Juan Carlos and other top officials, Pujol drew a line in the sand, calling for early general elections in 1996 that will radically change the political landscape.
Pujol and Gonzalez have been quietly negotiating behind closed doors since then. The public showdown comes Monday, the Catalans' self-imposed deadline to announce whether they will continue support Gonzalez through 1995.
Gonzalez wants the Catalans to support his proposed 1996 austerity budget to trim the deficit. In return, Gonzalez July 6 fulfilled a reported pledge to Pujol to announce - for the first time - that he would consider holding early elections in 1996. Gonzalez didn't rule out serving his full term through 1997, however.
Pujol might have pulled the plug sooner on Gonzalez, but the business-minded Catalans want to see Spain, which now holds the European Union's six-month rotating presidency, do a good job while it shapes the EU's agenda through 1995.
Some analysts see Monday's deadline as anticlimactic, with all the back-room horse trading already concluded. ''Everyone now expects elections in the first quarter of 1996. I think it would be a surprise if they were held at any other time,'' says Cesar Molinas, chief economist at FG stockbrokers in Madrid.