Sunday, March 9, 2008

Socialists Win Spanish Election, Retaining Power

March 9, 2008

MADRID — Spain’s ruling Socialists triumphed in a national election on Sunday, giving Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero a fresh mandate to pursue his agenda of sweeping social and political liberalization.

The outcome was a validation of Mr. Zapatero’s boldest decisions, including the withdrawal of Spain’s troops from Iraq, the granting of more autonomy to Spain’s regions, and changes that include fast-track divorce and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

“I will govern by continuing with the things that we’ve done well and correcting mistakes,” Mr. 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, Mr. Zapatero said he would work to fulfill the aspirations of women and young people and provide more support for the country’s elderly.

With 96 percent of the vote counted, Mr. 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 Mr. Zapatero and Mariano Rajoy, the head of the Popular Party.

Throughout the last four years, Mr. Rajoy and his party called into doubt Mr. Zapatero’s legitimacy and relentlessly tried to block his ambitious progressive agenda.

So it was not surprising that in his speech conceding defeat on Sunday night, Mr. 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.”

Mr. Zapatero appealed for a high turnout as he voted Sunday morning at a polling station near Moncloa Palace, the official residence.

“Spain is stronger if democracy is stronger; democracy is stronger if all citizens turn out to vote, to exercise our right to choose the future of our country,” he said.

Spain is perhaps more polarized politically now than it has been in decades, and when Mr. Zapatero emerged, he was met with both hearty applause and angry shouts of “Out! Out! Out!”

The voting was overshadowed by the slaying of a Socialist politician in the Basque region on Friday, a killing that both the government and the opposition blamed on the outlawed Basque separatist group ETA. But it is too soon to say what impact the slaying may have had on the vote.

After casting his ballot, Mr. Rajoy expressed hope that the will of the people would prevail — without disruption. “All I wish is that the only news today is that we have held elections, and that those who the people of Spain want to win will win,” he said.

But the atmosphere was significantly calmer than election day four years ago.

It was then that Mr. Zapatero unexpectedly swept into power after many Spaniards who had considered staying home turned out instead to deliver a message of anger against the conservative government of the Popular Party.

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 occupation in Iraq and its deception in dismissing evidence that radical Islamists, not ETA militants, were responsible.

In the months before this election, Mr. Zapatero held a small but steady lead in all opinion polling.

In casting their ballots, many voters expressed both frustration with the political infighting that has dominated the campaign and worry about the sudden downturn in the Spanish economy.

In the affluent Madrid neighborhood of Salamanca, Gloria Perez, a 58-year-old librarian, said the poor economic performance of Mr. Zapatero’s government prompted her to shift her vote this time from the Socialists to the United Left, which is led by the Communist Party.

“Zapatero has not done enough to bring down the price of rents, control mortgage costs, help young people and get us workers better salaries,” Ms. Perez said. She added that she was unimpressed by tax incentives offered by both of the main parties, including the Socialists’ promise to give every taxpayer a tax rebate of 400 euros (about $600).

“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, 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. “People are voting in a climate of terror. This is the price we pay for negotiating with terrorists.”

Mr. Zapatero both won and lost voters over his ambitious social and political agenda that has ushered in such changes as the legalization of gay marriage, fast-track divorce, recognition for the victims of the fascist Franco dictatorship and more autonomy for some of Spain’s 17 regions.

“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 Mr. Zapatero’s social changes 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 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 the choice of more than two dozen party lists, including mainstream parties like the Popular and Socialist parties and tiny ones like the Communist Party of the Peoples of Spain and the rightist Falange, which opposes immigration and supports the memory of the late dictator Gen. Francisco Franco.

A small new party headed by a Socialist former lawmaker who broke with Mr. Zapatero because of his negotiations with ETA also ran in the election.

Victoria Burnett contributed reporting.

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