MADRID — When Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero took power seven years ago, he and his Socialist Workers’ Party set out to perfect the welfare state in Spain. The goal was to equal— or even surpass — lavish social protections that have long been the rule for Spain’s Western European neighbors.
True to his Socialist principles and riding an economic boom, Zapatero raised the minimum wage and extended health insurance to cover everything from sniffles to sex changes. He made scholarships available to all. Young adults got rent subsidies called “emancipation” money. Mothers got $3,500 for the birth of a child, toddlers attended free nurseries and the elderly got stipends for nursing care.
How times have changed. With a U.S.-style real estate bubble having burst and the 2008 global economic crisis having unfurled like a tsunami from Wall Street to Plaza de Espana, Zapatero’s main concern in his second term has become hacking away at government spending to preserve Spain’s credit rating. The icon of socialism recently concluded a pact with labor unions and business leaders to freeze pensions, push back the retirement age from 65 to 67, trim union bargaining rights, cut civil servants’ pay by 5 percent (including his own) and suspend the childbirth bonus. The alternative, he warned, was bankruptcy.
“We are going to have to do this whatever it costs,” he declared, “and whatever it costs me.”
Cost him it did. Faced with a dramatic decline in opinion polls, Zapatero announced last month that he will not seek a third term, hoping his party can find another candidate less contaminated by the rightward shift he was forced to impose on a nominally Socialist government. But in protests ahead of local elections Sunday, demonstrators have expressed their continuing frustration with the Socialists and the austerity measures. Tens of thousands turned out Saturday despite a ban on political activity before the vote.
Spain has not been alone in making such agonizing choices. Across Western Europe, long-cherished social welfare programs have come under the scalpel in recent months as the continent’s governments seek to dig out from under deficits and debts pushed to dangerously high levels by the 2008-09 financial meltdown.
For conservative governments, the squeeze has come naturally. After heavy government outlays to rescue banks and keep economies percolating in 2008 and 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy in France, Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany have made fiscal discipline their political battle cry, faithfully echoed by the European Union bureaucracy in Brussels.
But in Spain, the trimming has been especially painful, because it is being carried out by a Socialist government whose ideology, leadership and support base all cry out for unbridled welfare spending and condemn the financial markets as a lair of capitalist gnomes. Although Zapatero and his lieutenants have defended the switch as unavoidable if Madrid is to remain solvent, many who voted Socialist in 2004 and in 2008 have detected the smell of treason.