Zapatero's Socialists face up to harsh conditions on the campaign trail

7th January 2008, Comments 0 comments

Opposition hoping to turn worsening economic performance to its advantage.

7 January 2008

MADRID - For many Spanish families January can be an uphill struggle as the overindulgence of the Christmas season - much of it paid for with credit cards and consumer loans - takes a toll on household finances. This year, with inflation at its highest level in more than a decade and unemployment rising, the January stretch may be even worse, creating additional financial headaches for families and, with an election only two months away, for the government.

With the economy now looking likely to become the main issue of the campaign for the 9 March election, several Socialist Party members are bemoaning Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's decision not to call Spaniards to the ballot boxes sooner.

"Prime minister, my advice is to call the elections for fall," Jordi Sevilla says he told Zapatero on 5 July in the meeting in which he was removed as public administrations minister. "The economic outlook for early 2008 pointed toward a deceleration, something that has been confirmed by inflation at 4.3 percent and a slowdown in employment growth," Sevilla notes.

The former minister is not alone within the Socialist Party in questioning Zapatero's wisdom in deciding to hold elections as scheduled, rather than bring them forward a few months to prevent economic worries from casting a shadow over the campaign.

Conversely, members of the main opposition Popular Party have been rubbing their hands together in eager expectation, viewing the economic climate in which the campaign will unfold as a golden opportunity to hammer the government on its economic management and play up their own credentials from the boom years of the previous PP administration of José María Aznar.

"In the midst of the financial struggle of January we are going to say to Spaniards: we were right and we are the only ones who know how to solve the situation," a PP strategist says.

Playing on its profile as a fiscally prudent party, the PP has fanned fears of Socialist overspending - even though the budget has run a surplus every year this legislature - while promising tax cuts if elected in March. PP leader Mariano Rajoy has claimed that his promise to eliminate income tax for anyone earning under EUR 16,000 a year and to lower taxes for many people earning more is the best way to offset the impact of rising energy and food prices.

How well voters will respond to that message on election day remains to be seen, although even without the clouds looming over the Spanish economy, the Socialist Party has cause for concern. Ever since late 2005, it has failed to pull away from the PP in the opinion polls, maintaining a narrow lead of between two and four percentage points.

However, some Socialists believe that the PP's insistence on making the economy the core issue of the campaign could play in their favour, not least because it will give them a chance to highlight the solid overall performance of the economy on their watch. "A bad quarter can't tarnish 15 good ones," Jesús Caldera, the Socialist Party's campaign coordinator, argues.

[Copyright El Pais / L. R. AIZPEOLEA / C. E. CUÉ 2008]

Subject: Spanish news

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