Four years of change, four years of controversy

LAST UPDATED: 1 Apr, 2009 @ 10:43
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Four years of change, four years of controversy

As the PSOE party retains power in Spain, CARLOS PRANGER analyses the socialist’s first four years in government

THE last four years have been among the tensest of the Spain’s fledgling democracy with numerous demonstrations against the government’s policies, threats of coups d’etat from leading generals in the army and a legislation that awakened Spaniards from their collective amnesia.

The current PSOE-led administration was ushered in on March 14, 2004, on a wave of mourning. Three days after ten bombs ripped through four Madrid-bound commuter trains killing almost 200 people, the socialists found themselves back in power after eight years in the shadows of the Partido Popular.

The bombs – planted by Islamic terrorists in protest at Spain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq – were carefully timed to coincide with that year’s General Election.

Fingers crossed then that other than being bruised and battered from a few choice remarks from the opposition, either Señor José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (PSOE) or Señor Mariano Rajoy Brey (PP) takes up residence at La Moncloa unscathed on March 10 (all due respect to Gaspar Llamazares (IU), but Spain’s third political party will not win this time around).
José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero

Back to the future

Let us now rewind four years. Miner’s son Zapatero began his term in office by brushing the cobwebs of torpor from Spanish society. He immediately withdrew troops from the unpopular war in Iraq and introduced radical initiatives such as the Ley Contra la Violencia de Género (a law against gender violence), the Ley de Igualdad entre Hombres y Mujeres (a law for equality between men and women) and the Ley de la Dependencia (a law to help disabled people).

This ambitous legislation was followed by a Pandora’s Box of a law that has drawn stinging criticism from not only a large chunk of the population and the PP opposition, but that traditional pillar of society – the Church.

The Law of Historical Memory officially criticises the Franco years while stopping short of declaring his uprising against a democratically elected government illegal. All references to the dictatorship have been or will be removed from the nation’s calles and public buildings as street names are changed and statues are uprooted.

The law, which was passed late last year, also calls for the uncovering of the many mass graves throughout Spain. All contain the bodies of those murdered by the Right and Left during and after the civil war (1936-39) that tore the country in two.

This legislation is controversial in that it breaks the 30-year-long pacto de olvido, a silence on the horrors of the conflict and resulting dictatorship proposed in part by members of Franco’s final government.

Critical errors

For all its positive changes, the socialists have made a critical error in failing to tackle the economy. It is now starting to show cracks as the construction industry crumbles. Consumer confidence is at its lowest for 14 years; unemployment continues to rise as applications for building permissions fall. The credit years have come to an abrupt end along with cheap borrowing costs. Much of the population is mortgaged up to its eyeballs with monthly repayments accounting for a large percentage of income. Madrid – it seems – does not know what to do about it.

No matter the outcome of March 9, the new government must make the economy a priority if Spain is to maintain its respected standing on the world stage.

One of the most difficult moments for the PSOE has been the on-off peace process with Eta. With the announcement of its permanent ceasefire in March 2006, hope had never been so high that the nation would see an end to the bloody conflict with the Basque separatist group. But with the Terminal 4 bombing at Barajas Airport in Madrid at the end of that year, this truce came to a tragic end as the lives of two Ecuadorian immigrants were lost under the rubble of a collapsed car park.

As rumours began that the government had met Eta representatives in Oslo, Norway, the PP opposition, the right-wing media and the Church launched blistering attacks on Zapatero, who was accused of betraying the nation in negotiating with terrorists.

As the General Election approaches, the nation is becoming increasingly divided as to which party deserves its vote. Many feel that the socialists have lost their impetus, and the PP – eagerly snapping at the government’s heels – have won many floating voters. Two years ago, the Conservatives trailed far behind the PSOE in the opinion polls. Today, the two parties are neck and neck.

If Zapatero – ZP to his supporters – does overcome the threat of Rajoy and the PP on March 9, he must get back to basics and continue with the refreshing social reforms the PSOE introduced in its first days of government. Maybe a cabinet shake-up has been a long time coming. And how about placing a meaningful value on a university education? First-time salaries for today’s graduates are among the lowest in Europe. For many, it is impossible to find employment within the field they studied. And what about a reform of labour laws? Let us see an end to the many low paid, no security McJobs that there are out there.
Oh, and do not forget the economy.

The socialist’s eternal reign

IT will probably come as no surprise to know that, since the arrival of democracy and the creation of el estado de las autonomias (autonomic states), Andalucía has only been governed by the PSOE.

The reasons for this socialist monopoly are myriad.

It is due in part to the severe repression carried out during Franco’s dictatorship. Andalucía was mainly pro-Republican due to it being a rural society formed by peasants and small proprietors. To this day, there is still a great deal of traditional family resentment against the Right in rural parts of the region.

Another reason is the error committed by the Spanish Right in the referendum on February 28, 1981. It voted against Andalucía having autonomy similar to that of the Basque Country or Catalunya.

At that time the Spanish Right was divided between the Unión de Centro Democrático and the Alianza Popular, a party which was to become the Partido Popular.

The Right lost the referendum and has, ever since, left the representation of Andalucía in the hands of the PSOE.

The people in the region, with its long history of illiteracy and poverty, wanted to participate actively in the New Spain and were not going to conform to the plans of the Right.

The UCD and AP used the slogan, Andaluz, Éste No Es Tu Referendum (Andalusia, this is not your referendum), while at the same time recognizing the autonomy of other regions.

This created a popular reaction throughout Andalucía in favour of autonomy. The Left represented by the PSOE romped home and became the image of modern Andalucía.

It has won every regional election since and nothing looks like changing this time round.

In the quarter century since that referendum, the PSOE has created an extensive, powerful social and economic network of interests and a change in Andalucia’s government is going to be difficult.

It is not just a matter of having a good opposition, but of change in the articulation and structuring of a society that has itself formed a symbiosis with the socialists.

A change would be healthy and interesting but, with circumstances continuing as they are, it is almost an impossibility.
Carlos Pranger

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