Spanish parties battle fiercely for power in close poll race

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The opposition "has spent four years telling lies," Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero yells to work the crowd at a rally ahead of the 9 March parliamentary elections.

5 March 2008

MADRID - The opposition "has spent four years telling lies," Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero yells to work the crowd at a rally ahead of the 9 March parliamentary elections.

While the Socialists "go on lying, we will continue telling them truths," Zapatero's conservative challenger Mariano Rajoy responds at a rally of his Popular Party (PP).

The dramatic rhetoric of the electoral campaign stands in contrast to the scepticism of many eligible voters who feel manipulated by politicians engaged in one of Spain's most ferocious battles for power in the recent decades.

A legislature characterised by acrimonious relations between the government and the opposition culminated in what the daily La Vanguardia described as an "auction of insipid promises" to secure votes.

Lower taxes, higher pensions, free dental care, cheaper mortgages - the parties have seemed willing to pledge almost anything to tip the balance of power in the close race in which the Socialists have a 4 percent lead, according to the latest polls.

The campaign has grown increasingly populistic, with the Socialists promising lavish social spending while the conservatives have toughened their discourse, pledging to make immigrants respect Spanish customs and to fight juvenile crime.

The bitterness of the battle grows partly out of the 2004 elections, which the PP seemed almost certain to win for the third consecutive time, when Islamist extremists turned the tables by killing 191 people in the Madrid train bombings three days before the poll.

Many voters attributed the attack to the conservative government's alliance with the United States in the Iraq conflict and suspected the government of deliberately misleading them when initially attributing the bombings to Basque separatists.

The elections swept Zapatero to power, leaving the PP feeling robbed of a due victory and determined to reconquer power in the upcoming poll, in which the Socialists' weakest point could be the economy.

For more than a decade, the Spanish economy has been one of Europe's top success stories, with half a million jobs created annually and unemployment plunging from more than 20 percent in 1994 to less than 9 percent.

Now, however, the global financial crisis and a meltdown in the overheated construction sector are contributing to a slowdown.

The job market has begun shrinking, food prices soared in December, and growth could drop from 3.8 percent in 2007 to possibly even as low as 2 percent this year.

In addition to the economy, the PP has attacked the government over its failed attempt to negotiate with the militant Basque separatist group ETA.

Weakened by years of police crackdowns, ETA has only killed four people during the entire legislature.

The PP has nevertheless focused on ETA and more generally on Basque and other separatist tendencies, accusing the government of being soft on ETA terrorists and of endangering national unity by granting regions such as north-eastern Catalonia more self- government.

On the social front, the Socialists take pride in their sweeping liberal reforms such as homosexual marriage, a law of equality for women and fast-track divorce, while trying to steer clear of the far-left tag that the conservatives try to pin on the party.

The PP has criticised the social reforms with caution, conscious that it would alienate many voters by aligning its policies too closely with the views of the Catholic Church, a useful but overly conservative ally.

Anger at Zapatero's reforms has made bishops and priests attend massive protest rallies, accusing the government of "abolishing the family" and indirectly encouraging voters to choose the PP.

In reality, the programmes of the Socialists and conservatives are fairly similar, but the long-running confrontation between them has created the impression of a deepening rift between the left and right.

That has resuscitated memories of the "two Spains" that faced each other in the 1936-39 Civil War and even earlier in the past.

Not only has the parties' extravagant campaigning revived the historical division, but it has also made citizens increasingly lose their faith in politics and undermined democracy, commentators complained.

A low turn-out would likely be most harmful to the Socialists, whose supporters tend to be less disciplined in using their right to vote, according to analysts.

[Copyright dpa 2008]

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