Spain's new conservative leaders make rapid push to overturn liberal laws

The speed with which Spain's conservative People's Party has pursued social reforms has stunned many Spaniards, who expected the government to wait until the economy improved. 

Sergio Perez/Reuters/File
Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (front c.) and his ministers pose before their first cabinet meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid in this December 2011 file photo.

Spaniards have been taken by surprise by the new conservative government's aggressive efforts to implement social reforms, overturning several liberal laws passed by the previous government amid tremendous economic uncertainty. 

The previous Socialist government passed a substantial amount of liberal legislation in the last eight years, including limiting the role of the Catholic Church in the state, legalizing gay marriage, relaxing abortion restrictions, and reforming the educational curriculum. While the Catholic Church and the ruling Popular Party accused Socialists of imposing an ideologically-motivated agenda too quickly, Socialists said they were only harmonizing Spanish laws with European standards – with the support of the majority of Spanish citizens. Dozens of polls over the past three years have consistently showed an even split on social issues.

The People's Party was voted into parliament with an absolute majority in November, mostly on a mandate to fix the economy, but it also promised to roll back some socialist laws on abortion and education. Now, some Spaniards are stunned with the party's decision to take on a cultural counter-revolution of sorts during a time of such great economic and political uncertainty. 

“This is the first time such profound revisionism takes place so fast, but the fact that nobody expected it makes it worse,” says Fermín Bouza, a sociology professor specializing in public opinion in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

The People's Party promised the legislative reforms during the election campaign in order to secure essential votes from its conservative base, but most Spaniards expected Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to delay any controversial ideological issues until the economy improved. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in Europe, almost 23 percent, and the Central Bank expects the economy to contract 1.5 percent in 2012 after a year of stagnant growth in 2011.

People's Party rising star Justice Minister Alberto Ruíz Gallardón, a former mayor of Madrid and one of the most popular politicians in Spain, announced he would soon introduce a bill to overturn the changes the Socialists made to Spain's abortion law, reverting to the 1985 version.

According to the current version, approved in 2010, teenagers aged 16 and older can have an abortion without parental permission in some cases and don’t need to meet pre-approved circumstances, such as rape or mental illness, as long as it’s during the first trimester. The People's Party's reforms will reverse both changes, Mr. Gallardón reiterated in a radio interview on Feb. 1, although he didn’t offer specifics other than it would mirror the 1985 version of the law.

And on Jan. 30, Education Minister José Ignacio Wert announced that a new law would replace the civic education curriculum that Socialist introduced in 2006, which included lessons on religious, racial, and sexual tolerance that were loudly criticized by the Catholic Church and the country’s extreme right. Mr. Wert said he would eliminate “issues that controversial and susceptible to ideological indoctrination,” although he didn’t offer more details.

The People's Party has not said when either of the laws would be introduced or passed. But a landslide victory in November elections gave the party an absolute majority in Parliament, meaning it doesn’t need to negotiate support from any other parties in order to pass legislation.

Mr. Rajoy said this week he will pass unpopular economic reforms that will trigger a “national strike.”

“This is the most radical version of the PP, complete revisionism. We are all surprised it started out so strong-handed, taking into the account the economic problems,” Bouza said. “This is not going to be productive. They are sacrificing the centrist vote that brought them to power for the extreme right.”

“These issues are nothing but small provocations, unnecessary, and contribute to radicalizing society precisely when the country needs cohesion,” Bouza added.

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