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EUROPE : Spain Pauses to Make Up Its Mind on Leader : With Sunday election nearly upon them, 17% of voters are undecided. Premier, opponent are running neck and neck.


MADRID — Today is an official pre-election "Day of Reflection" in Spain, leaving overheated politicians to quietly ponder the pride and pitfalls of their campaigns and allowing a decisive number of undecided voters to mull from what perspective they should select a new government.

See the forest, how well it has grown, Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez has told them in his quest for a fourth term after roughly a decade in office. Look closer, at the trees, growth stunted, trunks blighted, conservative Jose Maria Aznar has urged.

Polls say Sunday's showdown between Gonzalez's Socialist Workers' Party and Aznar's Popular Party is too close to call: 34.8% for Aznar, 34.5% for Gonzalez, 10.7% for the Communist-led left (this according to the newspaper El Pais, which surveyed 11,000 likely voters).

A whopping 17% of the electorate, about 5 million voters, were undecided when Spanish electoral law obliged pollsters to turn off their computers for the final week of the campaign.

Foreign policy differences are minimal among the major parties in a country wed firmly to European economic and military alliances, so the impact of the election will be modest for the outside world.

Most analysts believe that neither Gonzalez nor Aznar will win an effective majority of the sort Gonzalez has enjoyed in the 350-seat Cortes since 1982. That probably means that one of them will head a minority or coalition government formed this summer with the left or with regional parties.

Gonzalez called the election five months early amid a glum national understanding that the great Spanish fiesta of '92--a world's fair and an Olympics--is not only over but also has left pressing bills to pay. There's not much in the till.

After a decade of extraordinary growth within the European Community, Spain is now dead in the water economically. There have been three devaluations of the peseta since September totaling around 20%. The gross national product will actually shrink this year by about 1%. Unemployment has risen to an official 21.7%, with 3.3 million workers now off the job, an increase of about 800,000 since Gonzalez's last election in 1989.

"It is time for a government . . . capable of creating jobs instead of destroying them, of fighting corruption instead of ignoring it, of opening businesses instead of shutting them," snapped Aznar, 40, a former tax inspector, in one of two televised debates.

"The right only talks about doomsday because it has nothing to offer the country," Gonzalez, 51, rejoined, noting that Aznar is long on criticism and short of specific proposals for an economy whose health is tied as never before to Europe's.

Aznar hammers at the economy and corruption scandals. In one scam--a Spanish variation on an Italian theme--a dummy company was apparently used to filter millions of dollars' worth of illegal contributions into Socialist coffers in exchange for public contracts.

Gonzalez has also had to combat a longstanding, widespread impression in Spain that while his party, long since socialist only in name, has become arrogant in power, he personally is bored with the demands of running a country. By some accounts, Gonzalez would welcome becoming the next EC president, based in Brussels.

Aznar, who projects a cold, serious image, is an aggressive campaigner who clobbered Gonzalez on economics in the first of their debates. Felipe, as Gonzalez is universally known in Spain, battled back to win the second encounter, in the judgment of Spanish analysts.

Still, this is the conservatives' best shot at power since the 1970s, when Spain was still a young, uncertain democracy emerging from decades of Francoist isolation and dictatorship.

Times special correspondent John Pollack contributed to this report.

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