Spain: A Win for the Socialists

Spain will continue to be led by a Socialist government following Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's relatively narrow win at the polls on Sunday. After four years of bitter rivalry and a nasty election campaign, Zapatero defeated the Popular Party (PP) to win almost 44 percent of the vote and 169 seats in Parliament—15 more seats than the PP and four percent more of the overall tally with 97 percent of the ballots counted.  "Four years ago you asked me not to fail you, and I've have tried to live up to your demands," an exultant Zapatero told the cheering crowd in front of his party headquarters.

The Socialist victory gave it five more seats than when the party came to power in 2004. However, lacking seven seats to form a working government, Zapatero will have to form a coalition with one of the nation's smaller parties.  Catalan nationalist party CiU came in third place with 10 seats and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) won six seats.

Voter turnout at the polls was a high 75 percent, fueled partly by the closely-fought race and also because Spaniards seemed to want to send a message that they rejected Friday's assassination of a former Socialist town councilor by Basque separatist group ETA. At one voting station in downtown Madrid, the midday crowd resembled Christmas Eve shoppers as they packed into an elementary school to cast their votes.

Now Zapatero—bogged down by internal bickering with the PP during the last two years—needs to implement his election promises to create two million new jobs, reduce unemployment and increase the minimum wage. If Spain wants to continue growing, many economists say, it must invest seriously in education and research to bolster productivity. So far, Zapatero has more than doubled investment in research and development, and he has pledged to double the current amount over the next term to bring Spain in line with the European Union average. Renewable energy and information technology are two sectors in which economists would like to see Spain invest heavily. According to the Socialists' campaign platform, its next term will include a Science, Technology and Innovation Law to implement a new energy plan, so that by 2020 renewable energy will provide 40 percent of the power produced and consumed.

"I agree 100 percent that the current growth model is not sustainable," Carlos Ocaña, secretary of state for the economy, told NEWSWEEK during the campaign. "The country cannot continue to grow based solely on construction. Now we are going to invest in infrastructure, such as high-speed train lines and highways. But we're still not there. This has to continue for the next four or eight years."

To add to his list of social reforms during the first term--legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption, streamlining the divorce process and implementing laws promoting gender equality and care for the elderly –Zapatero wants to introduce universal schooling for children under the age of three, increase maternity and paternity leave, enact an anti-discrimination law, put forth a new sexual education plan (including a free morning-after pill), and provide incentives to attract Spanish medical staff from abroad.

ETA too, will have to be on Zapatero's agenda, especially after Friday's election-eve attack, evoked memories of the pro-Al Qaeda attacks on Madrid's commuter trains killed 191 people four years ago.  The then PP government lost the election after blaming ETA for the bombs even when evidence pointed toward a radical Muslim group.

Regarding the future of the PP, the back-to-back defeat for Rajoy, 53, is likely to result in an internal purge of those politicians close to the last PP government of José María Aznar. The party's shift to the right over the past four years rankled moderate factions and its strategy failed to win enough voter support to regain power. In the run-up to the election, PP congressman Gustavo de Arístegui told NEWSWEEK: "Perhaps what we need is a different tone and some new faces… In the PP there is a generation of patriotic, competent and well-educated politicians and the party needs to strengthen itself with this young guard." Despite an improvement at the polls from 2004, Sunday's result will probably leave the PP with little choice but to do just that.