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In Spain's elections, Socialists win with liberal appeal

Prime Minister Zapatero's party is likely to build on the sweeping reforms of the last four years, which have riled conservatives and the Roman Catholic church.

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The defeat in 2004 was never fully lived down by Mr. Rajoy, who often campaigned this year as if Zapatero was an amateur bent on destroying all that was right about Spain. In heated debates between the two last week – the first in 15 years – Rajoy repeatedly said to Zapatero, "Let me tell you how the Spanish people actually think."

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Late Sunday night in Madrid the youthful Zapatero, flanked by his ministers and wife, told an ecstatic crowd he planned to "govern for everybody, considering above all those who do not have everything ... govern with women's aspirations in mind, for fulfilling the hopes of youth, and for the elderly – govern with a firm hand but with a hand held out."

Sunday's turnout was 75.3 percent, only slightly lower than the '04 figure of 77.2 percent – the highest in modern Spanish history.

Spain, with 17 regions, has famously complex political alignments; since 2000, government has relied on alliances or pacts to survive. Yet the Socialists' victory of 169 seats – a modest improvement since 2004 but still seven seats short of a majority in the 350-seat parliament – suggest Zapatero will be less dependent on partners.

The outcome also suggests that Spain, which has many small parties, is moving toward a greater two-party system – even as basic splits between right and left are deepening and becoming more contentious.

More serious church-state clash?

Sunday's election may prefigure, for example, a more serious clash between the Socialist government and the powerful Catholic church here, analysts say.

During the campaign, the church at times openly supported the Popular Party – mobilizing priests and huge crowds in the streets, at one point stating that Zapatero's liberal agenda to allow gay marriage, more equitable divorce laws, and an opening of the long-suppressed history of killings under the Franco regime represented a "violation of human rights and the Spanish family."

Given that Spanish taxpayers fund huge segments of the church, the Socialists may well reexamine the funding and legal relationship between church and state, something Zapatero suggested earlier this year.

"I think you are going to see a greater confrontation between the government and the church," says Madrid political blogger Mr. Ponte.

In recent weeks the Popular Party tried to frame the elections as a referendum on pocketbook issues, serious recent job losses in the construction sector, and higher costs of food and living.

The Popular Party did indeed pick up new seats, topping 40 percent for the first time; yet neither the tough message on economics or the framing of immigration in negative terms worked.

Finance minister Pedro Solbes pointed out that economic doldrums are being experienced across Europe, and cited a recent United Nations report showing that Spanish growth rates remain quite high.