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A lurch to the right that cost Zapatero dear

The Spanish prime minister wanted to maintain a robust welfare state while handling the demands of the global economy. His decision to abandon the former in favour of the latter goes a long way to explaining the Socialists’ local election disaster.


Spain’s political map was redrawn on Sunday. A devastating defeat for the Socialist Party saw the Popular Party win the most votes in 11 of 13 regions and open up a two-million vote advantage in the municipal elections.

However you look at it, this was an utter disaster for Zapatero. This may not have been his fight, strictly speaking, because of its local nature. But having been his party’s chief electoral asset for several years, the prime minister has now become its albatross – something he tacitly admitted several weeks ago by deciding not to run for a third term. However hard his regional barons and municipal candidates tried to distance themselves from their national leader, ultimately their losses were his doing.

Zapatero has managed to pull off three major electoral coups in his career: the Socialist Party leadership in 2000, followed by general elections in 2004 and 2008. This time it was not to be. His handling of the economy and an unemployment line that at nearly five million continues to grow are the reason.

“My government’s ambition is to make this an innovative, creative, entrepreneurial country while upholding the social welfare state,” Zapatero told The New York Times as recently as July 2009, when he still believed he could combine his Socialist ideals with the demands of the global economy. “Twenty-first-century democratic Spain is not a country that is going to take a single step back in terms of rights that we have conquered.”

But that was before the money ran out. In the last year, as the international markets started to doubt Spain, Zapatero has abandoned that line and those rights have been eroded. His market-friendly reforms may have saved his country from the EU bailout threat, but his swerve to the right has cost his party the support of its own traditional base, handing an enormous amount of power, ironically, to the political right.

If there is one lesson the prime minister will have learned from Sunday’s debacle, it is that he can’t have it both ways.

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Published: May 23 2011
Category: Iberoblog
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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