In Spanish election, economy eclipses issues like gay marriage

Until recently, Sunday's vote looked set to be a referendum of sorts on Zapatero's sweeping Socialist reforms.

By , Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Prime Minister: Supporters, such as these in Badajoz Wednesday, have applauded Jose Luís Rodríguez Zapatero's Socialist reforms.
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Though unimpressed with either of Spain's two main political parties, Santiago Rodríguez knows what the big issues are in this Sunday's national elections. "Unemployment, salaries, immigration – those are the things that matter," says Mr. Rodríguez, a civil servant.

It wasn't expected to turn out this way. Only a few months ago, the March 9 vote looked set to hinge on broad political questions about national identity, regional autonomy, and how to deal with the Basque separatist group ETA. In addition, it was seen as a referendum of sorts on Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's sweeping social reforms on gay marriage, divorce, and other issues, which have riled conservatives and the Roman Catholic Church.

Then the economy faltered, and everything changed.

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"I can't remember if it was Churchill or another British politician who said, 'The worst thing that can happen to a reelection campaign is an event,' " says José Ramon Montero, political scientist at Madrid's Autonomous University. "With the economy, Zapatero has an event."

He does indeed. After reaching a high of 4.3 percent in December 2006, economic growth here slowed in the fourth quarter of 2007 to 3.3 percent. Unemployment in January hit 8.6 percent, spurred by crises in Spain's real estate and construction industries, which together constitute an unusually large part of the country's GDP. And in step with the rest of Europe, the costs of basic foodstuffs in Spain have risen exponentially in the past few months (the price of milk is up 25.85 percent in the past year, the price of flour up 19 percent).

Both major parties competing in Sunday's election have scrambled to recast their campaigns accordingly.

Zapatero, a member of the Socialist Party, has created a ¤210 ($320) subsidy for young people seeking to rent their own apartments and a ¤400 rebate for all taxpayers. In Monday night's nationally televised debate with Popular Party (PP) candidate Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister promised "a battery of actions designed to reactivate the economy," the first being an "infrastructure plan that will compensate for the drop in the construction industry."

Socialist Party campaign director Oscar López claims that the measures have made a difference. "We've shown that we're best prepared to confront this economic slowdown and demonstrated to Spanish families that we're the ones who will help them."

Not surprisingly, the conservative Popular Party disagrees. Under the Socialists, inflation rates in Spain are now double those of the rest of the euro zone, says PP spokesperson for foreign affairs Gustavo de Arístegui, who is also a candidate for parliamentary reelection. "They've provoked a crisis of confidence with their irresponsible policies. The Spanish people know that the Popular Party manages the economy better."

Following French president Nicolas Sarkozy's lead, the PP has attempted in recent weeks to allay economic anxieties by linking them to delinquency and immigration. Mr. Rajoy has promised to require immigrants to sign a contract agreeing to uphold "Spanish values" and has suggested that all the migrants who hope to come to Spain just "don't fit."

The conservative opposition leader stressed that point again during Monday's debate. "Immigration is out of control," said Rajoy. "Many people come here to work, and earn a living decently. They have and should have the same rights as Spaniards. But there are many rights for Spaniards that have suffered. As a result, we have to impose order and control, so that Spaniards' social rights aren't damaged."

The strategy's efficacy is questionable. "It's true there is a sector among the working classes that in the past voted Socialist but now is poorer, lives among immigrants, worries about crime and the economy, and sees immigrants as getting unfair benefits," says Professor Montero. "But Spain is not France, which is much more conservative and has a much bigger immigration problem."

Indeed, in recent polls the Socialists carry a modest advantage heading into Sunday's vote. A survey released Feb. 16 by Spain's government-subsidized Center for Social Research gave 40.2 percent of the vote to Zapatero's party and 38.7 percent to the Popular Party. This week, a Metroscopia poll for the center-left newspaper El País, put the margin at 4.1 points.

Amid the growing economic uncertainty, neither the Socialists nor the PP have abandoned key issues upon which each has staked – often contentiously – its identity over the past four years. López points to the Socialist Party's social initiatives and claims "that the question of who better protects social rights is going to determine this election": Arístegui points to "Zapatero's lies" after the ETA attack that killed two people at Madrid's Barajas airport in 2006: "He said then that the [peace] process was over; that he wasn't negotiating anymore. And then he admitted that the government had had contact with ETA later. That's caused enormous unease among voters."

Perhaps. But in Sunday's close race, that won't be the issue that drives student Esther García to the polls. She isn't sure who will get her vote, but she is clear about what's at stake: "Housing, the job market, the economy – those are issues that affect all of us."

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