Soon after the polls closed in Spain's national elections Sunday, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's Socialist Party looked set to win. With 67 percent of the votes counted, the Socialists had 44.5 percent of the votes, compared to 39.5 percent for the conservative Popular Party (PP), according to the Interior Ministry.
Despite a recent downturn in the economy and a Friday assassination blamed on Basque separatists, it looked like the elections turned on what the Socialists had been saying all along: that the country supported the broad social initiatives that have been the hallmark of their government over the past four years.
In addition to immediately removing Spanish troops from Iraq, Mr. Zapatero has legalized gay marriage, passed legislation that cracks down on domestic violence, and made gender parity mandatory within political parties. In 2005, his government offered residency permits to hundreds of thousands of previously undocumented immigrants who could prove they had a job.
The economy, which has faltered in the past few months after four years of unprecedented prosperity, was nevertheless on voters' minds. Although the Popular Party worked hard to promote their own economic policies and raise fears about the impact of immigration on the average Spaniard's financial well-being, its strategies were not as persuasive as Socialist promises to issue tax rebates and to subsidize housing.
"In the past, the Popular Party always had the reputation of being better managers of the economy," says José Ramón Montero, political scientist at Madrid's autonomous university. "But recent polls suggest that more people trust the Socialists now."
Nor did Spaniards appear to respond to the Popular Party's harsh criticism of the Zapatero government for its handling of domestic terrorism. On Friday, the Basque separatist group ETA shot and killed a former Socialist councilman. Although speculation ran high that the assassination would result in a massive turnout of Socialist supporters, voter participation on the whole has been slightly lower than it was in 2004.
"What I care about is the economy," says Mr. Nieto, a young industrial engineer. "I voted for the Popular Party because when they were in power 12 years ago. They took an economy that was in pretty bad shape and brought it to the top. They could do the same thing again."
But his actress girlfriend, Ms. Picado, bristles at that characterization. She voted for the Socialists, she says, "because they care about people. They want to support people who need help, not just advance those who are already ahead."
Socialist Party spokesman José Blanco issued the first statement on Sunday's results with a message that likely resonated with Picado. "Today we know that the change was worth the effort," he said. "Today we know that with Zapatero, the Spain of 2012 will be better than the Spain of 2008."
But Picado and Nieto wouldn't have heard those words. The two weren't going to watch the returns. "We're going to a movie tonight," said Nieto. "That way, we won't argue."