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.

Bernat Armangue/AP
Victorious: Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero celebrates his party's win in Madrid on Sunday.

Aided by a near-record turnout, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the Socialist Party won the Spanish national elections – suggesting further changes toward diversity in a young democracy whose older generations cut their teeth on the Franco dictatorship and the moral authority of the Roman Catholic church.

The Socialist victory suggests Mr. Zapatero's party has broken out of the longtime secondary status it has labored under, despite winning the last election in 2004.

Now, say analysts, the Socialists' more liberal appeal to young people, women, and immigrants – along with its contemporary style of campaigning – must be taken seriously by the conservative Popular Party (PP), which ran on an older message of Spanish traditionalism and antipathy toward the feisty Basque and Catalonia regions.

"This is a breakout by the Socialists, the maturing of a party," says Jacobo Ponte, a well-known political blogger for MSN in Madrid.

Significantly, as well, the Socialists scored the first-ever majority win by a national party in Catalonia and the Basque area – regions where local parties seeking greater autonomy or independence have long been most influential. The Socialist scores in these two most vibrant economies in Spain – whose capitals are Barcelona and Bilbao – suggest that the party's policies of gradually greater autonomy, much criticized by the Popular Party, may have gained traction.

The victory in influential Catalonia was especially striking, with political commentator Fernando Onega saying in the daily La Vanguardia, "Catalonia has chosen to influence central politics, instead of packing its bags to leave Spain."

Zapatero disproves lightweight label

This year's campaign was bitterly fought, often nasty, and punctuated by a political assassination in the Basque region attributed to the terrorist group ETA, days before the vote. But despite PP criticism of Zapatero as soft on terror, the attack failed to unseat his party – a fate the PP suffered in the last national elections.

In 2004 Zapatero's Socialist party barely defeated the ruling Popular Party days after the March 11 Madrid train bombings – the worst terrorist attack in Spanish history. Mariano Rajoy, leader of the PP, who were expected to win handily, insisted the attack was by Basque's ETA, even amid mounting evidence that Islamist terrorists had hit Spain for its participation in a US-led war in Iraq – increasingly unpopular in Spain, as it was throughout Europe.

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."

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.

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