Zapatero wins

Publicado por el mar 11, 2008

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victoria Zapatero.jpg

PUBLICADO EN THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

 

MADRID—Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero claimed a comfortable victory in Spain’s general elections Sunday. He increased his majority by five seats and is now only seven seats shy of an absolute majority. His share of the vote rose 1.05 percentage points compared with the 2004 poll. He’s a winner.

Opposition leader Mariano Rajoy also gained five seats in the lower house of parliament, and his vote grew 2.4 percentage points since the last election. He certainly lost the election. But Sunday night, acclaimed by his Popular Party’s supporters, he seemed a happy man. He’s shown no sign of resigning after his second defeat in a row.

If both leaders are happy, can anything be wrong? In the Spain of today, plenty.

Over the last four years, the ruling Socialist Party played two dangerous cards. It chose to hold negotiations with the Basque terrorist group ETA and it supported a new autonomy statute for Catalonia. The Basque initiative was denounced by the Popular Party as surrender to the assassins and the Catalan one as paving the way for independence in that region.

Both of these arguments found fertile ground among Spanish voters. Of the 17 members of the Spanish government who stood for a parliamentary seat Sunday, eleven ran in constituencies that the Popular Party won. (Under the Spanish electoral law, each constituency elects a number of MP’s under a proportional system.) Even the Zapatero-led Madrid list was trounced by Mr. Rajoy’s, which bested his by 10 percentage points in the capital.

But Mr. Zapatero was able to scrape away enough votes in Catalonia and the Basque country to hold on to power. Of the four Socialists ministers whose lists won, two ran in Barcelona. And there, in Catalonia, is one big key to Mr. Zapatero’s re-election. Of the 47 seats allotted in that region, the Socialists won 25 and the Popular Party seven—an 18 seat advantage in Catalonia that largely accounts for their overall 16 seat majority in the next parliament.
The big loser in Catalonia isn’t the Popular Party, but the radical Catalonia’s Republican Left. It lost five of its eight seats in Congress, the lower house. These republicans demanded outright independence from Spain and were complacent, at best, about ETA. The Republican Left are the junior partners in the Socialist-led Catalan regional government. But it’s clear that Mr. Zapatero sucked away a large part of their electorate in Sunday’s elections. Separatism may not be popular elsewhere in Spain, but the issue provided Mr. Zapatero with his margin of victory in the second most populous region of the country.

Further north in the Basque country, the Socialists won all three Basque constituencies. They got nine seats, a net gain of two, while the Popular Party came away with three, losing one. The powerbroker in that region, the Basque Nationalist Party, ended up with six, losing one.

The Nationalist-led Basque regional government says it’ll hold a referendum on moving toward independence in October. In their televised debates, Mr. Rajoy asked Mr. Zapatero four times what the government intend to do about an illegal (under Spanish law) act; only the central government can call referenda. The prime minister never answered the question. Sunday he got his not so surprising reward for not confronting the Basque nationalists: He defeated them at the ballot box.

Finally, Mr. Zapatero’s party pushed the former Communist Party, lately labeled United Left, over the cliff. In this election the United Left gave up three seats, leaving them with two, and lost over 300,000 votes. It’s now undisputable that the left can only be united around the Socialist Party. Oscar winner Javier Bardem, one of the hard left’s staunchest supporters, may have learnt that Spain is “No Country for Old Parties”.

The Socialist Party gained seats by getting the vote of the radical nationalists and the extreme left. But where did the Popular Party’s increased support come from? Surely from moderate voters who didn’t like to keep company with the newcomers inside the Socialist tent. It must be said to the credit of both the Socialists and the Popular Party that in a parliament of 350 seats they hold, together, 322.

But Mr. Rajoy’s strategy over the last four years adds up to an unquestionable failure to take advantage of the ruling Socialist’s vulnerabilities. In addition to the government’s handling of Catalan and Basque separatism, the economy is increasingly frail—as in most of the developed world—and the Socialists haven’t come through with any concrete plans to resolve the crisis. The Popular Party didn’t make a mark with voters on these issues. Abroad, Spain marginalized itself in Europe and lost its privileged relationship with the U.S. before Mr. Zapatero took office. While the Spanish leader claimed that his priority was to rebuild bridges with France and Germany, four years later it is Paris and Berlin that are rebuilding ties with Washington. Spain sits in a no man’s strategic land. But Mr. Rajoy couldn’t profit from this, either.

Surely what most damaged the Popular Party’s standing among many voters was its approach to the investigation into the March 11, 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid, which preceded by three days the Socialists’ surprise victory in the last elections. Nursing its sense of aggrievement, the Popular Party refused to accept the conclusions of the police investigation and insisted for years, following the lead of populist media, that the Islamists who carried out the train bombings were somehow linked to ETA. Sunday’s result is a good demonstration that many Spaniards looked at the Popular Party’s conspiracy-fueled attitudes toward 3/11, and saw a radical right party.

In selecting his candidates for Parliament, Mr. Rajoy made sure that there would be no obvious challenger to him should he lose the election. Potential competitors were kept off the lists. In the Spanish system the opposition leader should be a member of Congress. So maybe that’s why Mr. Rajoy seemed such a happy man Sunday night. The improved standing of his party guaranteed his job and no obvious alternative to his leadership exists, though some may challenge that immediately.

Beyond all the smiles on Sunday, the picture from Spain is that of a broken country. One in which Mr. Zapatero’s victory is cemented by the Catalan Socialist Party whose loyalties to Spain as a whole are conflicted and whose grasp on power will only be possible as long as it retains the support of Catalan separatists. A country whose current and future government doesn’t dare stand up to Basque separatism. Or show itself ready to tackle looming economic challenges or win back for Spain a role in global affairs. And whose opposition, on current evidence, looks destined to condemn itself to play second fiddle under a leader who seems desperate to hang on.
For Spain today, there is no cause for cheer.

Mr. Pérez-Maura is an assistant editor of ABC, the Spanish daily.

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