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News feature: Rows between “theo-conservatives” and left divide Spain

MADRID – Two months before the Spanish general elections, deep and bitter political and social divisions that once split the country are resurfacing in new ways.

Relations between the political left and centre-right have grown increasingly hostile during the current legislature, and are taking on the added dimension of an open confrontation between the Socialist government and the Catholic Church.

The political atmosphere known as "crispacion" (tension) is seen as dating from the 2004 elections, but many analysts also partly attribute it to the festering legacy of the 1939-75 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

After vain attempts to patch up its relations with the Catholic Church, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s government is now accusing the "fundamentalist" clergy of waging its own electoral campaign in favour of the opposition conservative People’s Party (PP).

Church leaders have entered the political arena with a vigour unseen since the Franco era, slamming the government’s social reforms such as homosexual marriage and speedier divorce, which several archbishops described as undermining democracy and human rights.

The church was returning to the "national-Catholicism" of the era of Franco, who came to power by defeating the leftist republican government in the 1936-39 Civil War, Justice Minister Mariano Fernandez-Bermejo charged.

Other leftist analysts have described the "neo-conservative" PP and "theo-conservatives" within the church as representing a rebirth of the old Francoist "radical right," which has reawakened the traditional anti-clericalism of the left.

The far-left party Izquierda Unida called on the government to "show the church its rightful place," and the Green Party joined it in calling for a separation between church and state.

The PP rejects the leftist analysis, seeking the role of a champion of security and national unity against Socialist waverings, while the church denies overstepping its role or divisions in its midst.

"Faith and morals are not a private, but a public matter," said Madrid cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, one of the leading conservative clergymen.

Most analysts trace the political tension to the 2004 elections, which the PP had appeared certain to win for the third consecutive time, but which it suddenly lost after Islamist train bombings killed 191 people in Madrid a few days earlier.

The conservatives never quite recovered from their defeat, and have focused on retaking power with what the Socialists criticise as unethical tactics, such as condemning the government’s failed attempt to negotiate with the armed Basque separatist group ETA.

The PP has focused on traditional conservative themes, such as a hard line against terrorism and national unity in criticism of the Socialists, whom they accuse of encouraging separatist strivings in the Catalan and Basque regions.

The PP has also forged a loose alliance with the Catholic Church, with some PP representatives joining bishops or priests in massive rallies against homosexual marriage or policies reducing the church’s influence on education.

The "new right" is characterised by strong-arm but democratically acceptable tactics such as street demonstrations, social analyst Salvador Aguilar wrote.

The PP, however, is also trying to keep a certain distance from the "theo-conservatives," aware that frontal attacks on divorce, gay marriage or stem-cell research could cost it a lot of support even among Catholic voters.

While the Catholic Church officially represents more than 80 percent of Spaniards, only about 30 percent of the Catholics are estimated to actively practice their religion.

The government has tried to steer clear of an open confrontation with the church, increasing the amount of taxes that Catholics can voluntarily contribute to its coffers, and excluding the liberalisation of abortion and the legalisation of euthanasia from its electoral agenda.

Its efforts have not convinced the church, which sees Zapatero as promoting a galloping secularisation threatening the very foundations of human society.

The government finally picked up the gauntlet, with Socialist representative Jose Blanco challenging the PP to include the abolition of divorce and abortion among its campaign themes instead of "hiding behind the bishops."

January 2008

[Copyright dpa 2008]

Subject: Spanish news