Zapatero to consolidate his "new Spain" after poll victory

Zapatero to consolidate his "new Spain" after poll victory

10th March 2008, Comments 0 comments

Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's victory in Sunday's elections will likely allow him to build on what he regards as a new and modern Spain.

Zapatero told cheering supporters he hoped to do so in more peaceful circumstances than during his first term in office, with less tension with the conservative opposition - but tranquillity appeared far from guaranteed.

Zapatero's victory consolidated his position, countering claims by the opposition that he was an unsubstantial leader who had won in 2004 only because of Islamist train bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid three days before the vote.

But the opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) also gained seats at the expense of smaller parties, making far-left leader Gaspar Llamazares describe the elections as a "two-party tsunami," a sign of the growing bi-polarisation of Spain's political scene.

During his four years in office, Zapatero had grown from a young leader whom the opposition ridiculed as "Bambi" to a bold premier who did not hesitate to carry out a series of sweeping social reforms against the virulent opposition of the Catholic Church.

The Zapatero government helped to turn traditionally conservative Spain into one of the most progressive countries in Europe, granting homosexuals full marriage rights including adoption rights, pushing through major women's rights legislation including electoral parity, and making divorce easier.

The government also authorised stem cell research and reduced the church's influence on education.

Hundreds of thousands of people attended protest rallies to listen to bishops accuse the government of undermining the family and even human rights.

The showdown between the government and the church was expected to continue during the upcoming legislature after the Bishops' Conference elected conservative cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco as its president.

The PP, however, has refrained from forming too close an alliance with the church for fear of appearing ultra-reactionary.

The church's indirect support may have cost the party some votes, as may its aggressive campaign which some voters saw as only focusing on blaming the Socialists, analysts said.

PP leader Mariano Rajoy attacked Zapatero over what he regarded as the premier's softness on terrorists after the government made a failed attempt to negotiate with the militant Basque separatist group ETA.

The party was expected to continue keeping a close eye on the government's line towards ETA, which interfered with the electoral campaign by gunning down a former Socialist councillor two days before the poll.

The killing was deemed to have helped the Socialists by mobilising their potential voters.

The killing was only the fifth by ETA during Zapatero's first legislature, a low number compared to the dozens of people that the group killed annually in the 1970s and 80s.

Yet ETA remains on top of Spain's political agenda, and Zapatero's failure to achieve a negotiated solution leaves him no alternative but the usual police crackdowns, which have weakened but failed to defeat the group.

The PP has also accused Zapatero of endangering Spain's unity by granting regions such as the north-eastern Catalonia more self- government, a subject which was expected to come up during the next legislature as well.

The fact that Zapatero did not get an absolute majority leaves him dependent on the backing of regionalist parties such as the Catalan CiU and the Basque PNV, which are expected to exact a heavy price for their support.

The Catalans, for instance, could insist on collecting more of their own taxes, while the Basques want to manage their social security.

Zapatero's biggest challenges will also include the economy, which is slowing down after a decade-long boom.

Growth could plunge from 3.8 percent in 2007 to as low as 2 percent. Unemployment has risen slightly to 8.6 percent and inflation is at the highest in more than a decade.

The government attributes the problems mainly to external factors such as the global financial crisis and rising petrol prices, but such arguments were unlikely to enthuse consumers struggling to cope with the high prices of milk, bread or eggs, observers said.

March 2008

[Copyright dpa 2008]

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