Monday, March 10, 2008

Zapatero wins Spanish election

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist Party has retained power in Spain's general election on the weekend. With 96 percent of the vote counted, the Socialists won 43.7 percent of the vote, and the conservative People’s Party 40.1 percent. The high turnout of 75.4 per cent favoured Zapatero whose party has won 169 seats (up five from 2004) in the Cortes falling just short of the 176 needed for an absolute majority. Mariano Rajoy's conservative Popular Party was set to win 153 seats (up six from 2004). Both major parties gained at the expense of minor parties but Zapatero will have to negotiate with one or more of them to form an effective government.

Zapatero’s triumph gives him a fresh mandate to pursue his agenda of social and political liberalisation. It was also a validation of his previous decisions, including the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the granting of more autonomy to Spain’s regions, and social changes that include fast-track divorce and the legalisation of same-sex marriage. “I will govern by continuing with the things that we’ve done well and correcting mistakes,” he said in his victory speech. “I will govern for all, but thinking above all of those people who do not have everything.”

Zapatero was elected in 2004 just three days after the Madrid bombing. He defeated Mariano Rejoy in that election and has repeated the feat four years later. That vote was seen as a protest against the People’s Party but this year’s election has given Zapatero the chance to throw off the "accidental" prime minister tag that dogged his first term. This year’s vote also came in the wake of tragedy just two days after the killing of Socialist councillor Isaias Carrasco by Basque militant group ETA which caused the campaign to be cut short by two days. Last night Zapatero paid tribute to Carrasco in his victory speech but his failure to negotiate with ETA could return to haunt him in this term.

In the immediate aftermath, the leader of the Basque nationalist party PNV IƱigo Urkullu said he had made Zapatero an offer to take advantage of the "chance to find a solution to the Basque conflict once and for all.” Urkullu said the results were not "as good as the PNV had wished" but believed his party had resisted the polarisation of the vote by the two main parties. PNV only ran candidates in the three Basque provinces.

Zapatero now needs to implement his election promises to create two million new jobs, reduce unemployment and increase the minimum wage. Spain needs to increase its investment in education and research to bolster productivity. Already Zapatero has doubled investment in research and development, and he has promised to double it again to bring Spain in line with the EU average. Their campaign platform has pledged to introduce a Science, Technology and Innovation Law to implement a new energy plan, so that by 2020 renewable energy will provide 40 percent of Spain’s power.

Meanwhile, the position of Opposition leader Mariano Rajoy will be scrutinised after his failure to regain power. The 52 year old Rajoy is a former deputy prime minister and interior minister in the government of Jose Maria Aznar and Aznar’s handpicked successor. The party shifted to the right over the past four years which rankled moderate factions. Rajoy made immigration one of the top issues for the first time in a Spanish election, calling for an immigration points system and restrictions on the Islamic headscarf. Although the party has improved its position since 2004, it has not done enough to gain government. Rajoy will not be resigning, after conceding defeat he said “I want to assure everyone who supported us with their vote that we will face up to all the challenges ahead".

But for now the plaudits are with the 47 year old Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Zapatero was born in the northern city of Valladolid and was raised in Leon where he earned a law degree at the local university. He taught constitutional law in Leon from 1982 to 1986. He joined the Socialist Party in 1979 and won a parliamentary seat in the 1986 elections. He moved through the ranks and was named party Secretary General in 2000 before leading the party to a surprise victory four years later. Last night he thanked his supporters and pledged a new period of unity in Spanish politics. "The Spanish people have spoken clearly and have decided to open a new period without tension, without confrontation,” he said.

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