Socialists triumph in Spanish elections
MADRID: Spain's governing Socialists triumphed in elections on Sunday, giving Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero a fresh mandate to pursue his agenda of sweeping social, cultural and political liberalization.
Despite a bitterly fought campaign, the outcome seemed to endorse some of Zapatero's boldest decisions, including the withdrawal of Spain's troops from Iraq, the granting of more autonomy to Spain's rebellious regions, simplified divorce and the legalization of homosexual marriage.
"I will govern by continuing with the things that we've done well and correcting mistakes," Zapatero said in accepting victory outside his party headquarters. He added, "I will govern for all, but thinking above all of those people who do not have everything."
In particular, Zapatero said he would work to fulfill the aspirations of women and young people and provide more support for the elderly.
With more than 99 percent of the ballots counted, Zapatero's party won 43.7 percent of the vote, and the conservative Popular Party 40.1 percent, according to the Interior Ministry. Turnout was high ? an estimated 75.4 percent of the country's 35 million eligible voters ? only a shade below the 75.7 percent turnout in 2004.
The election was a rematch of the bitter contest four years ago between Zapatero and Mariano Rajoy, the head of the Popular Party.
Throughout the past four years, Rajoy and his party called into doubt Zapatero's legitimacy and relentlessly tried to block his agenda.
So it was not surprising that in his speech conceding defeat Sunday night, Rajoy stood firm on principle, but said nothing about the need for national unity. "Everyone knows we are predictable," he said. "Everyone knows what we stand for. Everyone knows what I believe in."
The voting was overshadowed by the killing on Friday of a Socialist advocate in the Basque region, for which the government and the opposition blamed ETA, the militant outlawed Basque independence group. But it was too soon to say what effect the killing may have had on the vote.
Certainly, the atmosphere on Sunday was much calmer than on election day four years ago. It was then that Zapatero was unexpectedly swept into power after Spaniards delivered a message of disapproval and anger to the conservative government.
Three days before that election, Madrid was struck by terrorist bombings that left 191 people dead. Voters blamed the government for its participation in the American-led war in Iraq and its deception in dismissing evidence that radical Islamists, not ETA extremists, were responsible.
Because the Socialists failed to win the majority of seats in Parliament necessary to form a government and make decisions, they will have to create alliances with Spain's much smaller parties, as they did in 2004.
Early on Sunday, Zapatero appealed for a high turnout as he voted at a polling station near Moncloa Palace, the official residence.
Spain is perhaps more polarized politically now than it has been in decades, and when Zapatero emerged from voting he was met with hearty applause as well as angry shouts of "Out! Out! Out!"
In casting their ballots, many voters expressed both frustration with the petty infighting that has dominated the campaign and worry about the sudden downturn of the strong economy during the last year.
In the upscale Madrid neighborhood of Salamanca, Gloria Perez, a 58-year-old librarian, said the poor economic performance of Zapatero's government prompted her to shift her vote this time to the United Left, the main Communist Party, from the Socialists.
"Zapatero has not done enough to bring down the price of rents, control mortgage costs, help young people and get us workers better salaries," Perez said. She added that she was not impressed by tax incentives offered by the two main parties, including the Socialists' promise of a 400-euro tax rebate, about $620, for all taxpayers.
"What good is 400 euros going to do me?" she said. "That's bread today, hunger tomorrow. We need reforms that will help us in the long term: better work contracts, better salaries, less inflation."
Gloria Logares, a 65-year-old homemaker, said she cast her vote for the Popular Party as she has in the past, branding the Socialist government soft on terrorism for holding talks with ETA. "Four years ago we were voting with death hanging over us and here we are with death hanging over us again," she said, tears in her eyes. "People are voting in a climate of terror. This is the price we pay for negotiating with terrorists."
Other voters said they wanted to support Zapatero's ambitious social and political agenda that has ushered in reforms like new rights for women and recognition for the victims of the Fascist Franco dictatorship.
"Zapatero has given us more rights than any leader to the people of Spain: the old, the young, gays, men, women," said Santiago Cruz, 69, a retired plumber who lives in the working-class Madrid suburb of Vallecas, which has a large immigrant population. "I grew up under Franco with no rights. I grew up having to sing Franco's anthem so that his Fascist supporters would throw me scraps of cabbage."
Other voters claimed that Zapatero's social reforms were destroying Spain's value system.
"Zapatero is breaking with the traditional Christian values that we have espoused our whole lives," said Miguel María Santos de Quevedo, a 76-year old retired notary in Tomares, a town in Andalucía, who said he voted for the Popular Party. "He wants to impose his relativist values on everyone, to claim that there is no such thing as good and bad."
The election of the prime minister involves a complicated process in which voters do not vote for one candidate but for one party list of candidates for deputies in Parliament.
Voters had more than two dozen party lists from which to choose. A tiny new progressive party headed by a Socialist former lawmaker who broke with Zapatero because of his negotiations with ETA won one seat in Parliament, for example.
The rightist Falange, which opposes immigration and is devoted to preserving the memory of the late dictator Franco, also ran but failed to win a seat.