Spain Engulfed in Vast Social Change
Gay Marriage, Legalized Abortion, Domestic Violence Penalties on Government's Agenda
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 12, 2004; Page A10
MADRID, June 11 -- In less than two months since taking power through an election few analysts thought it could win, Spain's Socialist Workers' Party has begun implementing a domestic agenda to remake this historically conservative society to resemble the more open, secular models of northern Europe.
On the day he was confirmed as prime minister in April, socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told parliament he planned to change the civil code to allow gays and lesbians to marry, and to end all legal discrimination against homosexuals. This was followed days later with appointment of a new-look cabinet of eight men and eight women, including a female deputy premier -- gender parity that puts traditionally macho Spain on a par with Sweden.
The Socialists' first bill in parliament proposed increasing the penalties for domestic violence, which Zapatero called an "unacceptable evil" accounting for the death of one woman every week in Spain. The rules of royal succession would be changed, he said, to allow women to take the throne. Sex-change surgery would be paid for by the national health plan.
The socialists governed Spain for 13 years before losing to the Popular Party in 1996. Back in control, they are resuming an agenda of bringing Spain more in line with much of the rest of Western Europe after its long isolation during the rule of Gen. Francisco Franco. With money in short supply, however, they are holding back on traditional socialist goals of more generous social programs.
So far, their efforts have been supported by more than a majority of the Spanish public. Sociologist Alberto Moncado said the government's initiatives were particularly popular among young people, indicating the Roman Catholic Church's waning influence. "In Spain, like everywhere, young people are less church-going," he said.
The government has also announced plans to change Spain's restrictive abortion laws, to make all abortions legal during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Currently, abortion is allowed only in cases of a deformed fetus, rape or if the physical or mental health of the mother is endangered. There are also plans to roll back the previous government's law making religious education -- in Spain that means Catholic education -- compulsory in public schools.
Dramatic changes have also come in Spain's international relations. Fulfilling a campaign pledge, Zapatero withdrew Spain's small military contingent from Iraq, reversing the position of the former prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, who was one of President Bush's most steadfast European allies in the Iraq war. But Zapatero has stuck with the broader defense relationship with the United States, which maintains about 4,000 troops in Spain.
Zapatero quickly mended fences with France and Germany, promising that Spain would no longer block moves toward a European Union constitution and a new voting system for the union.
Government officials defend these moves as a response to voters' demands for change expressed in the March 14 election. Those demands were fueled by an attack three days earlier, when a series of bombs on morning commuter trains killed 190 people and an unborn fetus and wounded 1,400. The attack, initially ascribed by Aznar's government to the Basque separatist group ETA, was later linked to Islamic radicals angry about Spain's military presence in Iraq. The death toll was originally given as 191, but the new government reduced it by one after it decided the fetus was not a person.
Most opinion polls before the election had shown Aznar's party winning comfortably. But voters appeared to fault the government for mishandling initial information about the attacks and for seeming too eager to blame ETA.
Members of the Popular Party continue to call their defeat a fluke, an emotional reaction to the attack. Socialist leaders angrily reject that charge.
"All of the studies we made during the campaign determined that the citizens wanted change," said Javier Rojo, president of the Senate and a senior figure in the Socialist Workers' Party, in an interview in his expansive office. "We should respect the way the people voted. There are no votes that are somehow more legitimate than others."
In pushing for fast social changes, Rojo said, "We're trying to make Spain what Spain is. If somebody doesn't want to see this society for what it is, then he's out of touch with the world. In Spain, 50 percent of the population is women, and that has to be mirrored in the government. In Spain, people may want to live one way or the other, but they're all taxpayers. They're all equal."
The Catholic Church has met the planned changes with hostility and has pledged to fight them. Manuel Monteiro de Castro, the papal representative, told a Spanish bishops' conference in early May that "the new political situation has brought new challenges to the church, to which it will have to find an adequate response," according to a report by the Catholic News Service.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company