Zapatero faces first verdict of voters next week

18th May 2007, Comments 0 comments

18 May 2007, MADRID - Spain's prime minister, architect of trail-blazing social changes and a risky, failed bid to reach peace with Basque separatist gunmen, is about to get his first taste of voter sentiment since coming to power in 2004.

18 May 2007

MADRID - Spain's prime minister, architect of trail-blazing social changes and a risky, failed bid to reach peace with Basque separatist gunmen, is about to get his first taste of voter sentiment since coming to power in 2004.

Many see the May 27 local and regional voting as a warmup for general elections less than a year away. In fact, the debate has been so acrimonious and heavy on non-local issues you might think Spaniards are preparing to pass judgment now on Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the lanky, young Socialist lawyer who leads this deeply divided country.

"National leaders are trying to turn this into a national campaign," said Charles Powell, a political science professor at Madrid's San Pablo-CEU University.

Indeed, a campaign like this is supposed to be about building hospitals and bus stops. But Zapatero and conservative opposition leader Mariano Rajoy are addressing a much bigger picture as they crisscross the country and work rallies as if they themselves were up for re-election.

Polls suggest no major changes. In most of the 13 regional governments up for grabs _ all but the Basque region, Catalonia, Andalusia and Galicia _ the two main parties are expected to retain control of the patches where they now hold power.

This will set the stage for spin-doctoring, with both certain to paint a rosy picture of their results while jockeying for position ahead of the much bigger prize next March.

Relations between Zapatero and Rajoy and their parties verge on poisonous: Zapatero came to power just days after the March 2004 terror bombings in Madrid, which Islamic militants claimed as revenge for the support of Rajoy's then-ruling Popular Party for the Iraq war, overwhelmingly unpopular in Spain.

Rajoy's camp all but calls Zapatero's government illegitimate, a fluke born of tragedy.

Zapatero's party routinely describes itself as one that never lies. This is a biting and pointed allusion to the idea that the conservatives committed political suicide by deceiving voters _ blaming Basque separatists for the blasts even as evidence of Islamic involvement mounted _ in the run-up to the general election held three days after the massacre. The train bombings killed 191 people and wounded more 1,800.

The parties are at each other's throats on this and so many other issues that meaningful debate on things voters might actually care about _ the environment, water shortages, widespread corruption in Spain's bloated real estate sector _ has been overshadowed if not erased by bickering.

"So it often boils down to clashes of personalities, which is not very inspiring," said Powell.

To wit: when the Popular Party branch in Valencia announced it had reached a deal with Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone to start racing in Spain's third-largest city _ and Ecclestone suggested this would only happen if the conservatives won re-election _ Zapatero accused Rajoy and company of insulting Spaniards by trying to win them over with promises of zoom and glitz.

"This is called having principles of tin, like the patriotism they try to exhibit every day," Zapatero roared at a campaign rally in Valencia.

Two days later Rajoy shot back at the Socialist leader, describing Zapatero's own principles as a joke. "His are those of the Marxism of Groucho Marx," Rajoy said.

On Wednesday Rajoy took aim at Zapatero on one of the main issues of the campaign _ the Basque peace process, in which a year-old ceasefire by the armed group ETA led Zapatero to offer peace talks, only to see the plan collapse in a deadly ETA bombing on Dec. 30.

He said Zapatero is now "strengthening" ETA by allowing many candidates from a party associated with ETA outlawed political wing to run in the May 27 elections. In the Basque region the voting is for town halls, but not the regional legislature.

Zapatero said he found it appalling and unprecedented for the opposition leader to accuse the government of "supporting a terrorist gang."

[Copyright AP with Expatica]

Subject: Spanish news

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