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Zapatero’s summer of discontent

The Spanish government will have little time to enjoy an extremely narrow victory in pushing its austerity package through Congress. With the threat of a national strike –and possibly early elections– the prime minister can expect a torrid few months.


It’s not easy for any politician to be told he is a “political corpse.” But when the person saying this has just saved your skin it’s particularly hard to digest. So when Spain’s prime minister now looks at Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida, spokesman for the centre-right Catalan CiU grouping, it is with mixed feelings.

CiU ensured José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s €15-billion austerity package went through Congress on May 27 by abstaining during the vote. The abstention meant the governing Socialists’ 169 deputies scraped the measures through, with 168 voting against. The Catalan conservatives justified their abstention by insisting that while they did not agree with all the measures, the alternative would have been disastrous for Spain and therefore disastrous for the euro zone.

But days later, Duran i Lleida made it abundantly clear he has little sympathy for the prime minister.

“I’m sick of Zapatero, my opinion of him is not good, due to his inability, his incompetence and his frivolity,” he said. “A political corpse has to be willing to donate his organs to society, he must be capable of assuming his responsibilities,” he added, using his morgue metaphor to refer to what he sees as essential labour and energy sector reforms.

The Catalan politician’s appraisal reflects how Zapatero’s political capital has taken a nosedive in recent months. His initial refusal to take drastic measures on the listing economy followed by an eventual acceptance of the need to push through a highly unpopular austerity package has left him isolated in Congress and with his popularity at an all-time low.

That fateful congressional vote has sparked a theory that the Popular Party, which voted against the package, is in cahoots with CiU. The vote, according to this theory, was a pact, with the PP avoiding having to back a punch-drunk government and CiU able to look dignified and statesmanlike. The next step in this supposed agreement would be the PP supporting Duran i Lleida’s party in a governing partnership following Catalan elections this autumn; CiU would reciprocate by supporting the PP in the wake of general elections.

When those general elections are held is a moot point. At the moment they are scheduled for the spring of 2012. If Zapatero had lost the austerity package vote, however narrowly, his parliamentary impotence would almost certainly have forced him to bring them forward. Nonetheless, the waft of early elections is still floating in the air, particularly as the Socialists look likely to struggle to get next year’s budget through Congress after the summer.

“The Socialist Party will definitely lose votes by taking these measures. But what it has to do is push ahead and implement them, insisting they are the responsible thing to do,” says political analyst Víctor Sampedro.

Sampedro believes that, having failed to maintain his progressive stance on the economy, Zapatero must now recover moderate voters by returning to issues on centre-left territory, such as historical memory and the religious freedom law.

With the PP currently 10.5 points ahead of the Socialists and on course for an overwhelming majority, according to a recent El Mundo poll, Zapatero will be fearing an early ballot (which the same survey said 50.6 percent of respondents want to see).

Echoes of a Socialist disaster

But in the shorter term, the Socialist leader is more concerned about the prospect of a general strike. With the two main unions, the UGT and CCOO, opposing the austerity package and currently at an impasse with the government and the employers’ association over labour reform, a strike is looking increasingly likely.

General strikes in 1988 and 1994 dealt crippling blows to the relationship between the Socialist administration of Felipe González and the unions. They also preceded poor electoral performances by the governing party – the latter removing González from office.

“The two Socialist terms between 1990 and 1996 illustrate the difficulty of recovering social dialogue following the traumatic (strike) of 1988,” writes academic Pere Jódar of Pompeu Fabra University in his study of Spanish industrial action in the late 20th century. “No social accord or framework was agreed on after that.”

With that 1994 protest sparked by government labour reform as the country was emerging from recession, the current prime minister can hardly ignore the parallels.

With July and August being bad months for strikers in Spain due to the holidays, the longer the unions delay their decision on any action, the better for the government. If a strike of any force can be avoided at least until the State of the Nation debate on July 14-15, Zapatero could take the initiative by carrying out a major Cabinet reshuffle and presenting a government with a renewed sense of purpose. This would feasibly give him the impetus to ride the storm – if the economic recovery is not overly hindered by his reluctantly implemented measures.

The only other obvious potential lifeline for Zapatero this summer would be a convincing ceasefire declaration by ETA, as a prelude to its disbandment. Such a development would require a good deal of luck on Zapatero’s part, something he has enjoyed in abundance in the past, but which he seems to be running out of more recently.

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Published: Jun 7 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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