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Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Reelected After Tough Campaign

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 10, 2008

MADRID, March 9 -- The Socialist party of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero won a reelection battle Sunday, turning back a tough challenge by the more conservative Popular Party, which accused the Socialists of mismanaging the economy, opening Spain to a flood of illegal immigrants and capitulating to terrorists.

But voters turned out in force to endorse the progressive social agenda that Zapatero championed in his first term -- including new laws on women's rights, divorce and gay marriage -- and returned him to office for another four years. The Socialists increased their seats in the Congress of Deputies, falling about seven short of an absolute majority; they may now rely less on coalitions and compromises with smaller parties, strengthening Zapatero's position.

"I will govern thinking first about those who don't have everything, working for the aspirations of women, giving hope to the young, and giving help and support to the elderly who have worked all their lives for it," Zapatero told cheering supporters in his victory speech. He promised to "govern with a firm hand, but an extended hand."

With 99 percent of the ballots counted, the Socialists won a projected 169 seats in the 350-member Congress with 43.7 percent of the vote, compared with 154 seats for the Popular Party, with 40.1 percent of the vote, according to Spain's Interior Ministry. In the last session of Congress, the Socialists had 164 members and the Popular Party had 148. The number of seats held by smaller parties fell from 38 in 2004 to 27, signaling Spain's continuing transformation into a two-party democracy.

In a concession speech interrupted repeatedly by defiant cheers, Popular Party leader and former interior minister Mariano Rajoy noted that the party had increased its seats and its share of the popular vote.

Despite the better showing, it seemed possible that Rajoy, whose combative style as opposition leader has been widely criticized, could face an internal battle to keep his job as head of the party after leading it to two consecutive losses.

The Socialists, who tend to appeal to younger voters with a higher rate of absenteeism, were concerned about low turnout this year. But 75.3 percent of eligible voters cast ballots Sunday, apparently giving the Socialists an important edge. Analysts said the killing on Friday of a former Socialist politician in the Basque region of northern Spain might have helped energize the left's base; many newspapers on Sunday carried front-page pictures of the slain man's daughter calling for people to vote.

The campaign this year was intensely negative and personal.

The election was a rematch of the 2004 Zapatero-Rajoy face-off, which the Socialists won in an upset after voters turned against the incumbent Popular Party at the last minute, angry at its mishandling of deadly terrorist bombings in Madrid three days before the balloting. Popular Party leaders blamed the Basque separatist group ETA for the attacks, which killed 191 people, ignoring evidence that Islamic extremists were behind them. Many voters also strongly opposed Spain's participation in the Iraq war, which had been approved by Popular Party Prime Minister José María Aznar. Zapatero withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq shortly after his election.

During Zapatero's term, the opposition rarely missed an opportunity to attack the prime minister and his policies, particularly his landmark social changes that included legalizing same-sex marriages, permitting gay couples to adopt, liberalizing divorce, strengthening gender equality, granting amnesty to 600,000 illegal immigrants and reducing the role of religion in public schools.

His government passed new laws permitting more regional autonomy, which the Popular Party said threatened the unity of the state. Zapatero also launched peace talks with ETA that collapsed after the group bombed a parking lot in December 2006, killing two people; the Popular Party accused Zapatero of being naive and soft on terrorism.

Zapatero's initiatives often brought the government into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, a pillar of Spanish society. Church leaders attacked the Socialists, saying they weakened Spanish democracy, human rights and family values.

For his part, Zapatero did little outreach to the opposition as he rammed home his social agenda, contributing to a deep polarization between younger, more modern and secular Socialists, and the Popular Party's older, more conservative churchgoers.

In the end, the negative, divisive politics left many here frustrated and angry.

The intense bitterness was displayed Sunday morning when Zapatero voted at Madrid's Buen Consejo Elementary School, where protesters greeted him with shouts of "liar!" and "coward!"

"We have a prime minister who sympathizes with terrorists and doesn't defend the county's territorial integrity," said Almudena Guti┬┐rrez, a 50-year-old homemaker, after voting for the Popular Party in downtown Madrid.

But Socialist voters said they liked Zapatero's changes and accused the opposition of exaggerating Spain's problems.

Taxi driver Francisco Vicente Lanciego, 50, said he traditionally voted for the Popular Party but was switching to the Socialists because Rajoy had allowed the party to become too negative and extremist.

"The PP doesn't have any credibility -- they criticize everything," Lanciego said. "Rajoy's campaign was based on nothing but fear."

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