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Time is Zapatero’s enemy as he seeks to reform

Over the coming months the Spanish government will attempt to push through some key reforms. For the prime minister they make political, as well as economic sense.

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The government and the unions are back at the negotiating table. This time, among the issues they are discussing are reforms to the pensions system and the proposal to delay the retirement age from 65 to 67. This willingness to talk is in many ways encouraging. It is a throwback to the days, not so long ago, when the Zapatero government and the unions got on so well it was hard to detect any ideological discrepancies between them. It also hints at political maturity on both sides.

But it’s also important to remember that this pensions reform was first mooted in early 2010, as the government scrambled to fend off market hostility and Zapatero started moving away from his centre-left instincts and towards the orthodoxy of the economic right. Given the apparent importance of the legislation, it is moving at a very slow pace.

The government’s attempts to seek consensus on it before trying to make it law is an apt reflection of how the prime minister is currently waist-deep in a reform program that betrays some of his most cherished ideals. And yet, from his most recent declarations, Zapatero seems committed –or resigned– to pushing through with this program.

“There is something worse than a lack of consensus, and that’s a lack of reforms,” he said at the presentation of the prime minister’s economic report on January 12.

Apart from the pensions issue, there are further reforms planned, such as an attempt to make the services sector more competitive and, crucially, changes to the collective agreement clause contained within the new labour law.

There has been a sense in recent months that given the chance, the government would backtrack on its newfound reformist agenda. The willingness to keep talking to the unions, the appointment of a former union leader, Valeriano Gómez, as labour minister, and some public relations lapses all fuelled this suspicion.

However, as time runs out for the government with May’s local elections looming, followed by 2012’s general elections, it seems Zapatero, always the pragmatist, is pushing through with the reforms not just for economic reasons, but also political ones.

“He’s not a profound ideologue or the kind of political leader that takes the left into new territory,” says José García Abad in his balanced, book-length profile of Zapatero, El Maquiavelo de León.  “He is not, in that sense, an historic leader of the kind who mark a before and after, but he is a careful politician, a virtuoso when it comes to harvesting votes. He is, to sum up, an out-and-out politician and on the political battlefield it’s difficult to beat him.”

According to this reading of the prime minister, his current zeal to reform makes political sense. We still don’t know whether he will run for a third term in 2012 – his performance in recent polls and the state of the economy would suggest that is less likely than it was six months ago. But if his attempts to make the economy more modern, effective and competitive are successful, they could take effect in time to give him, or his successor, a boost ahead of the 2012 election and at the very least mitigate an expected electoral hammering.

Zapatero the great optimist no doubt believes this. But having engineered a series of shock triumphs during his political career –in 2000 with his election as Socialist Party leader, followed by general election wins in 2004 and 2008– he may have simply run out of time on this occasion.





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Published: Jan 17 2011
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=1866
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