Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Politics: Spain's General Election Campaign

Spain's choice

Published: March 3 2008 02:00 | Last updated: March 3 2008 02:00

Spain's general election campaign, now reaching its climax, has been a dispiriting spectacle. Against the background of an economy weakened by the end of cheap credit and a sharp property market correction, the contenders seem to be trying to bribe or frighten Spanish voters.

That is odd. Spain in the past three decades has become a confident and prosperous democracy. For the first time, wealth has spread throughout what for centuries had been an unevenly developed country, where it had developed at all. If all you did was listen to Spanish politicians, you probably would not guess that.

Spain's public life has become very polarised. The rightwing opposition Partido Popular, in power for eight years after a 14-year Socialist reign, remains unreconciled to losing the past election, in the wake of the March 2004 Madrid train bombings by north African jihadis.

Instead of acting as a parliamentary opposition, the PP has tried to impugn constitutionally major initiatives of the Socialists, in an effort to paralyse government. Mariano Rajoy, its lacklustre leader, has failed to emerge from the shadow of José María Aznar, the former prime minister, and has colluded in a hysterical campaign by the Catholic hierarchy that calls into question the legitimacy of the government.

José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the prime minister, has been uninspiring. His social policy has aimed at creating a tolerant and decent society. He managed the macroeconomy competently but did little to address structural weaknesses such as low productivity growth, a weak technology base and a huge current account deficit. He has been self-congratulatory on economic prospects, just as he was overconfident about reaching a peace settlement with the Basque separatists of Eta.

The PP has used these negotiations as a stick to beat the government, part of an attempt to conjure up a caricature of a Spain disintegrating as Basques and Catalans demand ever more devolved power.

Mr Aznar also negotiated with Eta, and allied with regional forces, just like the Socialists - as whoever wins next Sunday may well have to do. The PP's problem is that its current leaders have not completed their journey from Francoist roots to a modern centre-right.

Revealingly, the PP is placing its hopes of victory on Socialist voters staying home; Mr Aznar's attempt to paint the 2004 Madrid bombings as the work of Eta, despite evidence it was carried out by jihadis, was worth 3m extra votes to Mr Zapatero. It is equally revealing that the Socialists do not appear confident they still have them.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

Zapatero victor in TV debate, say polls

04/03 13:33 CET

Spain's prime minister emerged the winner from a second pre-election television debate with the opposition leader, according to opinion polls. The socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and the conservative Mariano Rajoy clashed on terrorism, immigration and the economy.

Zapatero said: "I am committed to peace, with Spain at the heart of Europe, by defending international legality. I am committed to a unified and tolerant Spain, which respects plurality, not division, because there will be a better future if we have confidence, not pessimism. And for all that, I ask for your vote and support for the four years to come."

Rajoy picked on the government's record on the economy, and ridiculed its attempts to resolve the problem of the Basque separatists ETA.

"I will offer the leader of the opposition a pact," Rajoy said, "a pact against ETA, to defeat ETA, not to negotiate with ETA. I will also offer him a deal on foreign policy, and also on what I think is a key issue; a deal to consolidate and modernise our social security system, principally on pensions and health. And furthermore, I want to say I won't be the leader of the Popular Party, but first and foremost the leader of every Spaniard, because our aim is to govern without stirring up tension and confrontation."

Two opinion polls on the outcome of the debate, which was the last one before Sunday's vote, put the Prime Minister ahead, winning the match by around 20 per centage points.


Can Zapatero Cling on? France24

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