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How history will judge Zapatero

Many will remember Spain’s socialist prime minister for his mishandling of the economic crisis. But his legacy in other areas – particularly social reform – is substantial.


Jordi Sevilla, a former minister in the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, recalls how his then boss once told him about a massage he had enjoyed a few days after becoming prime minister. “The masseur was amazed at how little tension he had,” Sevilla said. “This guy had spent a week in La Moncloa (the prime minister’s residence) and that’s enough to leave anyone completely spent!”

Zapatero: not feeling so lucky anymore...

Zapatero: not feeling so lucky anymore...

The anecdote, recounted to writer José García Abad, reflects a couple of popular, not entirely accurate, perceptions about Zapatero: that he is a detached, even cold politician, whose meteoric career has been driven purely by calculation; also that he is a featherweight who doesn’t understand the gravity of his position.

If Zapatero did not need a therapeutic rubdown on taking power in the spring of 2004, he could certainly do with one seven years on. By the end of December, when his replacement as prime minister should be in place, Zapatero will almost certainly be ending his front-line political career. And the last months of his tenure have been the most exacting he has experienced, reinforcing the “lightweight” charge, due to the chaos threatening to engulf the Spanish economy and the perception that its leader failed to handle the crisis adequately.

The recent increase in weight on Zapatero’s shoulders has also been accompanied by his dramatic transformation as a politician over the last 18 months. Between his handling of the economy and his u-turn on key social issues, Zapatero has gained bitter critics on both left and right. While many still say he lacks weight, the charge of Machiavellian calculator has faded, with improvisation more commonly seen as his great failing.

At first glance, his legacy is one of economic mismanagement and panicked, zealous reform. But given more perspective, how will history judge Zapatero?

“Zapatero did a lot of things that will have social consequences. His legalisation of gay marriage, for instance, was an important achievement in a country such as ours,” political analyst Fernando Vallespín told Iberosphere.

Vallespín identifies the prime minister, in his early years in power, as a “political reformist”, in the sense that he believed Spanish democracy could be improved by improving social rights. Even his most outspoken enemies will not dispute this view. Perhaps the most gracious public utterance by Esteban González Pons of the Popular Party (PP) in recent months was when he told El País that Zapatero “will be remembered as a prime minister who was concerned about people’s rights.”

Gay marriage and adoption, in 2005, was the most obvious and controversial of these rights. In the area of gender equality he led by example, appointing a Cabinet half of which was made up of women (a policy that would later be dropped as the crisis’ grip tightened).

In making abortion more accessible and speeding up divorce, Zapatero’s government made a powerful enemy: the Catholic Church. The combination of highly progressive social reforms and a quasi-political Church leadership meant relations would always be uneasy, even though financially, this Socialist government has treated the Church extremely favourably.

Breaking the pact of forgetting

He made himself more enemies by broaching the issue of the Civil War and the legacy of Franco. The Historical Memory law sought moral (but not financial) redress for victims of the war and the dictatorship and it also decreed the withdrawal of Francoist symbols from public spaces.

This was all perfectly reasonable for most on the left, but for politicians and media on the right it was needless meddling with history and broaching a taboo.

“The Historical Memory Law is proof of Zapatero’s determination to divide Spaniards and pit them against each other,” said Ángel Acebes, of the Popular Party. “Zapatero wants to dig up the worst of our history, the Civil War, and forget the best: the Transition and the pacts made between Spaniards.”

Many of those who agreed with Acebes even saw the law as an attempt by Zapatero to exact revenge for the death of his grandfather at the hands of Francoists.

The law may indeed have been divisive, although even those who backed it now see its reach as relatively underwhelming. But Zapatero’s decision to push through parliament a bill tackling an issue that former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González had avoided during his 1982-1996 administration reinforced his credentials as a bold social democrat dedicated to reforms that filled some gaping holes in Spanish democracy.

Years of provocation and insults

But while Zapatero could be accused of deepening ideological schisms in his quest for a fairer society, in other areas he has been studiously apolitical.

His overhaul of state broadcaster RTVE may still be in process, financially, at least, but the company is no longer the tribal, partisan mouthpiece it was during José María Aznar’s government, whatever the PP may claim. Zapatero doesn’t always cut the most prime ministerial of figures, despite his unsuccessful attempts to convey gravitas, but for the most part he has been statesmanlike, even in the face of provocation and insult.

When Hugo Chávez publicly attacked Aznar during an Ibero-American Summit in Chile in 2007, Zapatero saw it as his duty to reprimand the Venezuelan leader (with the less tactful backing of King Juan Carlos), despite his lack of affinity with his conservative predecessor.

The circumstances of Zapatero’s election victory in 2004 are one reason he has had to endure a shocking level of hostility from the PP opposition and critics on the right. Three days after the March 11 terrorist attacks in Madrid, the election upset appeared to be more attributable to anger at the Aznar government’s dishonest management of the tragedy rather than the Socialist campaign manifesto.

But for most of Zapatero’s first term in power, the PP and its supporters fanned the baseless theory that ETA had been involved in the 2004 attack and even that the Socialist leader was in cahoots with the Basque separatists.

Peace, just in time

The Basque issue offers ammunition for both Zapatero’s supporters and his enemies. His declaration, in December 2006, that “in a year’s time things will be better than they are now” was horribly undermined when ETA broke off their ceasefire within hours by killing two people with a bomb in Madrid airport. The bold reformer had never looked so naïve and unprepared.

And yet, five years on, just months before stepping down as prime minister, one of his biggest ambitions has come close to fulfilment with ETA’s announced decision to cease its terrorist campaign.

The continued pressure of the police in Spain and France has been a huge contributing factor. But, ironically, so too was the 2006 bomb: it divided the terrorist group, weakened its political and public support and ensured ETA would never get back to the negotiating table.

Likewise, Zapatero’s foreign policy has been such a rollercoaster it’s hard to assess as a whole. His hostility to the Iraq invasion and withdrawal of troops from the country on taking office made him the enemy of the most powerful leader in the world.  George W. Bush exchanged barely a handful of words with him during the course of five years – a badge of honour for many voters, but hardly good for Spain. The animosity of those years has been followed by the basketball chat and bonhomie Zapatero enjoys with Barack Obama, even if the US president isn’t all that interested in Europe, let alone Spain.

Elsewhere, Zapatero has repaired the damage to ties with Morocco caused by Aznar. He has also focused more on Europe. Though he lacked the presence of a figure like Felipe González at EU summits, the Spanish economy was strong enough to demand attention. That was all right as long as it was the right kind of attention, but over the last year, Zapatero and his beleaguered Economy Minister Elena Salgado have been on a non-stop mission to persuade the world that despite the public deficit, the lack of growth and Europe’s highest jobless rate, Spain will bounce back. It’s easy to think that task would have been easier if Zapatero had not brought Salgado in to replace the much more reassuring – and fiscally hawkish – Pedro Solbes.

Denying the obvious

Solbes instinctively opposed bonanza measures such as the €2,500 “baby bond” for new mothers and a regressive €400 across-the-board tax break. These are just two policies the Socialist government has had to backtrack on since winning a second term in the spring of 2008, when the world crisis was just distant enough for Zapatero to deny it.

A dud on the economy maybe, but Zapatero made his mark.

A dud on the economy maybe, but Zapatero made his mark.

Denying it in 2008 was one thing, but Zapatero continued to refuse to accept reality even when the economic indicators were screaming it at him. This late reaction meant the response, when it came, was extreme: a pensions freeze, civil service pay cuts, unemployment benefit cuts, raising the age of retirement, and hastily negotiating a constitutional reform to limit the deficit. This was a betrayal of some of his most cherished convictions.

“The crisis came and he made the mistake of denying the crisis until it was already there and so I think that’s why the people haven’t forgiven him,” says Vallespín. “He didn’t seem a leader any more. He seemed just to be at the orders of Germany mainly, and the central European states of the euro and I think this brought down his stature as a politician.”

In his book about Zapatero, El Maquiavelo de León, José García Abad places great emphasis on the politician’s apparent good fortune:

“Zapatero is convinced that he’s lucky. Felipe González was once asked in a television interview what the new prime minister’s biggest strength was and, after thinking it over, the only thing he could think of to say was: ‘He’s lucky’.”

Few would take that view now, as Spain fights off the threat of economic meltdown. But for about four years, Zapatero was lucky: in the freakish way he came to power in 2004, and doing so during an economic boom. When the tide turned, he failed, as have so many of his European counterparts during this crisis. But when he leaves the prime minister’s residence for the last time, in December, and returns to his hometown of León, he will do so having changed the country unalterably, in many ways for the better.

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7 Comments for “How history will judge Zapatero”

  1. I much disagree that his achievements were in any way great. Gay rights and a review of the civil war and the Franco dictatorship were simply overdue, but under Zapatero those issues were dealt with in a very biased fashion in order to gain cheap applause from one sector of society. For some time it did look like there was a totally hip sector of society facing a totally antiquated opposition. But that was a mirage.

    But it’s the economy that makes people more equal, or not. The housing bubble was visible already before Zapatero took office, yet he adopted no measures to counter its finally devastating effects. Much money was spent on insane infrastructure projects to appease local and regional strongmen, i.e. to buy votes, but no grand plan was developed, no strategy for the country. Nothing to boost efficiency, such as changing the totally insane working hours and the schedule of public schools. No reinsertion programs worth the mention. No leadership on economic issues at all that would have kept Spain competitive and the jobs at home, or created new ones. And still no social security for when unemployment benefits run out.

    The economy has been left to run its way of the lowest resistance, just as Zapatero was always looking for the easiest way out. This time that means losing the elections, because someone else will lose them for him.

    • I wouldn’t term his achievements “great” either, I just feel that the common view that he has been an utter disaster, because of the economy, needs putting in some context. The economy should certainly be a priority -the priority when it is going badly- but I think social and political reforms are still extremely important, even in a supposedly “developed” nation.

  2. Who doesn’t know how to spend money? What political or even management skill does it require? The public coffers were overflowing when Z took office and until 2006 continued to and as Candide says there was “no grand plan […] no strategy for the country”. An apparent total ignorance of even basic macro-economics led Z from one critical policy stumble to another. When he was finally told by his (some more, others less competent) advisers that he needed to recognize the country was in free-fall, it was far too late. My only concern is…where from here? More austerity (Rajoy’s mantra) we’ll bring true revolt to the streets of Spain. Rajoy proclaims himself a great fan of David Cameron’s axe swinging. Well, take a look at the U.K. now. They’re in a SELF INDUCED/CREATED “almost” recession.

  3. I concede that it is hard to find impartial commentators in Spain, but Mr. Vallespin is one of the worst choices if you wanted to assess Zapatero’s tenure: he has been a solid devout of ZP for all these years, only until his reality check at the 11th hour.

  4. “…he will do so having changed the country unalterably, in many ways for the better…” and in many, many more ways for the worse. He not only looked like Mr. Bean but emulated him in many ways – although with considerably less ‘gracia’ than Rowan Atkinson.

    There have even been calls for the day he leaves to have a new saint attached to it – San Suspiro – for surely that will be the sound throughout Spain as he closes the door of the tradesman’s entrance to the Moncloa. There are many who will be gladdened at his passing – though perhaps not the immigrants.

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