Spain’s new divided era?

Zapatero is no longer the ‘accidental’ prime minister, but without an outright majority the socialists face a challenging term.

Had the socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero not been re-elected, he would have gone down in Spain’s history as the only prime minister not to win a second term since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975 and the restoration of democracy. His victory, though not with an absolute majority, showed that he was not an “accidental” prime minister catapulted into office in 2004 as a result of the bomb blasts by radical Islamists which killed 191 people on commuter trains – as the rightwing Popular party (which, unlike Zapatero, supported the war with Iraq) liked to claim. The socialists won even more votes on Sunday than they did four years ago.

The PP lost because of its relentless strategy of confrontation, with the socialists whose victory it never accepted. About the only thing they could agree on during the last government was a law setting up a nationwide support system for those unable to care for themselves. They attacked the socialists over virtually everything else, particularly Zapatero’s attempt to reach some kind of deal with the Basque separatist group Eta to end its 40-year campaign of violence. Having initially tried to pin the blame on Eta for the bombs in 2004 three days before the election, in a cynical attempt to gain electoral advantage, the PP then spent three years sowing doubts about whether the Islamists were solely responsible for the blasts, despite evidence to the contrary. Spaniards became fed up with this crispación, reflected in the all-time low levels of public confidence in both the leader of the opposition (Mariano Rajoy) and the prime minister.

Just as the bombs in 2004 propelled Spaniards to vote (particularly disenchanted leftists who normally abstain and the young first time voters), so too did Eta’s brutal murder of a former socialist town councillor (victim number 822) less than 48 hours before the polls opened. Voter turnout at 75.3% was high by European standards, and only a fraction below the level in 2004.

The PP’s defeat was also a blow for Spain’s belligerent and staunchly conservative Catholic church hierarchy, its ally, which crossed a red line during the campaign by fiercely attacking the government for its abortion, gay marriage and education policies. Had the PP won, the timid advances towards a more secular state would have ground to a halt.

The socialists, however, cannot take too much comfort from their victory. Not only are the 169 seats they won in parliament seven short of the 176 needed for an absolute majority (in 2004 they were 12 short), but the PP gained five more seats and also a record number of votes. Spanish politics became very polarised and parliamentary life very vicious during the last socialist government and it looks as if this will remain so. The country is divided into two solid blocs, and the situation will not be eased by the socialists having to find a parliamentary ally and horse trade among one or more of the regional parties (whose influence on national political life is out of all proportion to their political weight because of the quirks of the electoral system). The PP is bound to make hay out of the socialists being “hostage” again to parties that put their own interests above those of Spain as whole. One of the socialists’ previous parliamentary allies was the Catalan Republican Left, which favours independence for Catalonia: the number of seats it won dropped from eight to three and so it is of little use to the socialists even assuming they want its support, which is most unlikely given the ructions it caused last time (among socialists as well as the PP).

Having presided over the last phase of a 15-year economic boom (during which Spain’s per capita income overtook Italy’s), the socialists are now going to have to adroitly manage a downturn and maybe an outright recession, depending on how fast the property market collapses. This, in turn, is going to create problems among Spain’s more than 4.5 million immigrants (10% of the total population), many of whom work in the construction sector and are beginning to lose their jobs. Spaniards have so far been remarkably tolerant of immigrants who have flooded into the country over the last decade, as there has been plenty of work for them. But as unemployment rises and state schools and the public health system become even more stretched this tolerance is going to be tested.