Spain: Obama and the Vote

Consider the 2008 presidential campaign in Spain a rematch. After all, the two main candidates in this Sunday's general elections are the same as in 2004: José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, from the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), and Mariano Rajoy, from the Popular Party (PP). Rajoy was the front runner last time, until the Madrid bombings, which led to a victory for the left-leaning PSOE, in part because of their promise to withdraw troops from Iraq. This time around, Zapatero remains popular, and is currently ahead in the polls. NEWSWEEK's Ana Elena Azpurua spoke with Andrés Ortega, director of the Spanish edition of Foreign Policy magazine and columnist at the Spanish newspaper El País, about this year's heated campaign and what worries the Spaniards. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How is this campaign different from last time?
Andrés Ortega:
In general, the PP's campaign has been more focused on attacking the PSOE than on offering solutions. One PP ad shows a family at home. Zapatero's voice, denying that there is an economic crisis in Spain, plays in the background while the family's furniture is taken away. The socialist's campaign has been more voter mobilization. They know that with active participation they have a greater chance of winning.

How would you compare the Spanish campaign with the one taking place in the United States?
[Hillary] Clinton is more about constructing a coalition of voters around concrete proposals that satisfy different groups, while [Barack] Obama is more about broad strokes, about change and the Iraq War and less about details. In Spain, I believe Zapatero has had a very concrete campaign tailored to specific groups. Rajoy has had a more general campaign, stating that the PP has clear ideas and that proposals are not the most important thing--governing style is. Rajoy is more like Obama in the way they present their proposals, although when it comes to ideology, this is not the case. Zapatero is much closer to Obama than Clinton in that realm.

If you had to write an article summarizing this campaign, how would you title it?
"Campaigning Among Pit Bulls," meaning that the candidates are harshly confronted. The campaign reflects Spanish society, which is very divided, like many other advanced European societies and the United States.

What issues divide Spanish society?
Spaniards are most worried about the economy. They are not divided on that issue. The lines of division are elsewhere: the devolution process, especially with Catalonia and the Basque country; immigration, because Spain has become, in absolute numbers, the second-biggest immigration destination, after the U.S., and how to tackle the terrorist threat of an ETA that is weakened but nonetheless still capable of doing damage.

What issues have been neglected in this electoral race?
The candidates haven't talked much about foreign policy, which was one of the main topics during the 2004 election because of the Iraq War and the position that [former prime minister José María] Aznar took on that issue. There is a general agreement about some European issues, such as being opposed to the independence of Kosovo.

Do you think they will behave differently towards the U.S?
Zapatero is waiting to see who wins the presidential elections in the U.S., while Rajoy will probably have a more direct line to the current Bush administration. But both want better relations with the U.S. president. I think they will seek to recover that relationship after the U.S. elections.

You wrote a letter to the next Spanish president recommending that he implement a more active foreign policy. Specifically, what do you think he should do to benefit Spain's interest in the world?
I would recommend that he serve as a bridge between France and Germany, because their relations are not good at the moment. Secondly, I'd advise him to try to invest more in building good relations with the United States. Also, Spain should play a more constructive role in Latin America, for example, by preparing and pushing for change in Cuba.

How does Spain stand in the world after Zapatero's first term in office?
Zapatero has had a discreet foreign policy. I don't think he has been very interested in focusing on foreign policy during his first four years. If he wins, he'll have to be more interested, because in 2010 Spain will have the presidency of the European Union. In general, I would say that Zapatero's foreign policy has followed the feelings of the Spanish people, especially on issues like withdrawing troops from Iraq and investing in good relations with Europe and promoting the European Constitution.

Will voters turn out in high numbers for this election?
There will probably be a high turnout, but not as high as in 2004. Then, people voted against the government. Some cast their votes to punish Aznar's administration for the way it had managed information after the Madrid bombing. Those attacks mobilized many people who don't usually vote. This time interest is not as high.

Join the Discussion