Spain's Zapatero: reformer who battled economic crisis

2nd April 2011, Comments 0 comments

Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who announced Saturday he would not stand for a third term, is a bold reformer who passed landmark social reforms but whose popularity plummeted along with country's economy.

A supporter of his Socialist Party's reform faction "New Way", which is similar to former British prime minister Tony Blair's "Third Way", Zapatero became a model for socialists across Europe.

Little was known about him when, aged just 39, he was elected Socialist Party secretary general in July 2000, four months after it lost its second successive election to the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP).

But the former lawyer was swept into office in a surprise election win on March 14, 2004, just three days after the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people.

Zapatero drew support from many Spaniards who accused the conservatives of attempting a cover-up by insisting the Basque separatist group ETA was to blame even though evidence pointed to Islamic extremists angered by Madrid's role in Iraq.

Many, even in his own party, saw him as a lightweight when he came to power, his permanent smile, bright blue eyes and youthful demeanour earning him the nicknames Bambi and Mister Bean.

But his first decision on taking office was to defy Washington and withdraw Spain's troops from Iraq.

After that, he set about reforming Spanish society.

Among his reforms have been laws to promote gender equality, combat domestic violence and make divorce easier, as well as an amnesty for undocumented workers.

The government also passed a law that officially recognises the victims of Spain's 1936-39 civil war and the ensuing right-wing dictatorship of General Francisco Franco -- an issue close to Zapatero himself as his grandfather was shot and killed by Francoist forces.

Many of his reforms have incensed leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, which has roundly condemned them.

In March 2008, he won a second term in office as head of a minority government, after campaigning as the face of the modern, progressive Spain which he said would be threatened if his PP rival Mariano Rajoy were to win.

But the Spanish economy slumped into recession during the second half of 2008 as the global financial meltdown compounded the collapse of the once booming property market.

It reemerged with timid growth early last year, only to shrink by 0.1 percent in 2010. Meanwhile the unemployment rate ended the year at 20.33 percent, the highest level among industrialised countries.

Zapatero's government is now desperately seeking to reassure markets worried that its public deficit is unsustainably high and that the country could follow Greece and Ireland in seeking a debt bailout.

Since last year Zapatero, 50, has attempted to push through painful austerity measures and labour market reforms to trim the public deficit and slash unemployment.

And since early 2009, the Socialists have seen their popularity decline along with the economy.

In an opinion poll published March 13, the PP widened its lead over the Socialists to 16.5 percentage points.

On Saturday, Zapatero announced he would not seek a third term in 2012 elections, and called on the Socialist Party to hold primaries to elect a new candidate.

It followed months of speculation that Zapatero might step down in favour of Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, 59, one of the most powerful figures in the government.

Critics say he has taken too many risks, not always welcomed even within his own administration, by granting more power to the independent-minded northeastern region of Catalonia and by conducting failed negotiations with ETA.

That peace process began with an ETA ceasefire in March 2006 which ended in December of that year with a bomb attack in a car park at Madrid's airport that killed two men. ETA formally called off the ceasefire in June, since when Zapatero has taken a hard line against it.

In January, ETA announced a permanent, verifiable ceasefire after more than 40 years of bloodshed. But Zapatero rejected the offer, demanding that the separatist group go further and disband entirely.

Zapatero and his wife, opera singer Sonsoles Espinosa, have two daughters.

But his family is rarely seen with him in public and little is known of his private life. He is said to enjoy playing basketball with friends and is a fan of the Barcelona football club.

Zapatero was born in Valladoid, an industrial city in northwestern Spain, on August 4, 1960.

He became a member of the Socialist Party aged 18 in 1979, shortly after the re-establishment of democracy in Spain.

He studied law in university, and was elected as a deputy from the province of Leon, where he grew up, becoming the youngest member of parliament at age 26.

© 2011 AFP

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