The End of the Spanish Empire

The listing on Ebay España tells you all you need to know about the current Spanish election campaign: "I'm putting my vote up for bid … I will vote exactly as the top bidder asks." Humorous? Possibly. Cynical? Definitely. Voters don't go to the polls until Sunday, but many Spaniards have already made up their minds: they're not happy with the parties or the candidates. And they'll undoubtedly be ho-hum about the results, whatever they are.

The candidates have done their part, too, in turning this into the eBay Election: it seems anything and everything is for sale. When Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero pledged to create 2 million new jobs over the next four-year term, the Popular Party's Mariano Rajoy promised 2.2 million. When Zapatero said he would cut income taxes, Rajoy offered to cancel them (on annual incomes below €16,000). When the Socialist Party promised to plant 45 million trees—one for every Spaniard—the PP thought hard and promised 500 million. These electoral bribes are "bread to the masses," says Rafael Pampillón of Madrid's Business Institute. "But giving a drug addict methadone isn't a long-term solution."

The descent into Politics For Sale is a particularly shocking fall for Zapatero, who came from nowhere to become a popular and effective leader four years ago. As he battles to secure a second term, he now seems adrift except for his contempt for the political opposition. True, his success in 2004 was almost accidental: the then-incumbent Popular Party reacted so cynically to the Madrid train bombings three days before the election that the Socialists, led by Zapatero, were gifted their victory at the polls. Still, in the early years of his government, Zapatero was feted worldwide for his apparent competence and vision. But it gradually became clear that he lacked charisma and he slowly sank into a welter of petty domestic disputes, fell off the global radar and, more importantly, turned off the electorate with a series of botched policy decisions.

Zapatero's early success began to look as accidental as his election—not so much the product of political leadership as a dividend bequeathed to him by a strong economy. The latest polls have the Socialists and the PP neck and neck or give Zapatero & Co. a slim lead going into Sunday's election. But if he does win, the government he will form will be weaker than it is today. The combination of more partisan squabbling and less decisiveness does not bode well for any prime minister facing the sort of issues that loom on Spain's horizon. Political gridlock in Madrid will make it tougher to deal with perennial issues like managing immigration and keeping a lid on regional disputes.

But a bigger storm is brewing: Spain's economy is slowing, from an enviable 3.8 percent last year to a projected 2.4 percent this year. Unemployment took a slight upturn, to 8.6 percent, at the end of last year. More significantly, inflation is rising—to above 4 percent—and the spectacular housing bubble has burst. Half of the country's real-estate offices folded during 2007, according to an industry association—a stunning figure even if many of those offices consisted of just one person and a cell phone. None of this is out of line with the rest of the euro zone, but that's precisely the problem. Spain as of last year was way ahead of the pack. Spain has become an "average" country, says André Sapir, a Belgian economist and an adviser to Zapatero.

Mediocrity is hard to digest when you've tasted stardom, and the Spanish people are disheartened by the spectacle of their leaders descending into pettiness. Last week, Zapatero, 47, and Rajoy, 52, faced each other in the first televised debate in 15 years in Spain, yet they did so with no confidence. Fearing gaffes, their handlers choreographed the event with such paranoia it was bound to be unenlightening. The candidates talked past each other, and viewers as well, parroting sound bites from stump speeches and brandishing documents neither they nor the audience could read at a distance. They came across as bickering neighbors, not statesmen. The sad truth, says Paul Isbell of the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid, is that Spain needs first-rate leaders and Zapatero and Rajoy don't make the grade.

The choice between two lackluster figures is quite a comedown for a nation that had appeared to be enjoying a run of unusually strong leadership. Trapped in sterile isolation for four long decades under Generalissimo Francisco Franco and freed only by his death in 1975, Spain didn't begin to experience an economic boom until the early 1990s, well into the long rule (1982-1996) of Felipe González. Open to trade and investment and new ideas in general, it became the California of Europe: a tourist mecca (second only to France) and an agricultural hothouse, a magnet for immigration and a strong player in telecommunications, with Latin America as its "Pacific Rim." Taking office after González, Prime Minister José María Aznar declared, repeatedly, that Spain would soon "punch above its weight" in the global ring, and for the first time since the fall of its empire, it did.

An admirer of the way Tony Blair revived Britain's global reach, Aznar followed a similar strategy, allying with the United States in the Iraq war, confronting terror at home and pursuing free-market reforms that helped make Spain the most consistently robust big economy in Europe. Aznar would be driven out of office by his mishandling of the March 11, 2004 attack, opening the door to Zapatero's Socialists. But under Zapatero, Spain's reputation continued to swell. Though he is neither a commanding personality, nor a conviction politician in the way Blair and Aznar were on foreign policy, he likes to describe himself as a democrat who believes fervently in women's rights. He joined the party as a teenager, studied law, and at 22, was named secretary of the Socialists in León. He was the youngest deputy when he was elected to Parliament in 1986, rising slowly to become party leader. As prime minister, he seemed to be moving quickly to put his own stamp on Spain. But his early popularity derived from the fact that he was not the newly reviled Aznar. He distanced himself from Bush and withdrew Spain's troops from Iraq.

Closer to his political heart, he introduced social reforms hailed by the center-left: promoting equal treatment for women in the workplace, legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples and making divorce easier. All the while, fueled by immigrant labor, Spain's traditional economic ties to Latin America, huge numbers of second-home buyers from across Europe and the lasting benefits of having privatized state industries, Spain grew at up to 4 percent a year, well above the European average. Spain was suddenly seen as cool, competitive and compassionate—a Hispanic, sun-drenched Sweden, only with five times the number of people.

Zapatero's approval ratings initially reached nearly 60 percent. Across much of Europe, which shared the Spanish people's antiwar, anti-Bush sentiments, he was seen as a New Left alternative to the pro-interventionist, pro-American Blairite school. But increasingly he became entrenched in internal politics. He become more party leader than leader of his country, putting his energy into sparring with the center-right. On the domestic front, Zapatero made two grave political missteps. His first was to ally his party with the Republican Left of Catalonia, a party that seeks Catalan independence. Right-wing politicians and commentators accused him of promoting the Balkanization of Spain—exploiting a deep-seated national fear that was refueled by Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia last month, which Spain, unlike most of Europe, did not recognize.

Zapatero's second miscalculation came when he decided to open talks with the ETA after the Basque group declared a ceasefire in March 2006. It was a courageous move, at a time when polls showed the country evenly divided over whether to negotiate with terrorists. But daily accusations from the opposition poisoned the atmosphere. When an ETA bomb killed two people at Madrid's airport in December that year, Zapatero was forced to end negotiations. Since then, dissatisfaction has increased; by January this year, Zapatero's approval rating had slipped to just 40 percent.

So far, Rajoy has has been unable to capitalize on his opponent's weaknesses. A longtime PP apparatchik, he is a colorless politician whose singular advantage in becoming party leader was that he was hand-picked by Aznar. His policies are very much in line with the PP mainstream: he sides with the Catholic Church on social issues like same-sex marriage; he proposed a Nicolas Sarkozy-like "contract" to ensure immigrants adopt Spanish customs. But the PP itself has been split and weakened by infighting since its 2004 loss. A defeat on Sunday will heighten calls for a party shakeup.

Meantime, the two parties and their leaders behave "like 17th-century armies where one side shoots, then reloads while the other side shoots," says a political analyst at a Spanish bank—anonymously, because he doesn't want to inject his employer into this partisan brawl. As a consequence, says William Chislett, the author of several books on Spain, "the level of disenchantment with the political system is at an all-time high."

The country seems, if not adrift, becalmed at the moment, even unsure of itself and its identity. It has long been an oddity at sporting events that Spanish athletes stand mute or just hum along as their national anthem is played: "La Marcha Real" (The Royal March) has no lyrics. The Spanish Olympic Committee recently sponsored a competition to put words to the music—30 years after the Francoist lyrics were removed—and Placido Domingo was to sing them at a committee gala in January. But the committee scrapped the idea after it rejected more than 7,000 entries. "The lyrics had to meet two requirements that they did not fulfill," said committee president Alejandro Blanco. "They had to unite people and there had to be consensus." Franco, with his sinister emphasis on fascist-tinged nationalism, gave patriotism a bad name. Many Spaniards find it easier to be Basque or Catalan than to be Spanish— to prize regional identity over national identity. A dispiriting election campaign such as the one now ending doesn't help.