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Terrorism returns to haunt Spanish polls

MADRID, Spain (CNN) — It’s a rematch in Spain in Sunday’s elections, as the Socialist prime minister, who won an upset victory four years ago in the wake of the Madrid train bombings, faces the conservative challenger.

Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s first decision upon taking office in 2004 was to pull Spain’s troops out of Iraq, upsetting Washington.

But he’s been upsetting conservatives in Spain a lot more since then, facing blistering criticism from the opposition leader, Mariano Rajoy, who thought he would be elected prime minister last time.

Zapatero has put Spain in the vanguard of European social policy, legalizing gay marriage and making divorces easier to get. The Roman Catholic Church staged a mass demonstration in Madrid last December, blasting the government policies.

The last years of the Zapatero government have been very aggressive against Christians and Catholic values. There is a lack of respect to religious feelings, Lola Velarde, a conservative activist and a leader of the Institute for Family Policies, told CNN.

But on the opposite side of opinion is Teresa Alcala-Zamora, great-granddaughter of Niceto Alcala-Zamora, who was president of the Spain’s Second Republic in the 1930s.

Spain is not a Catholic nation, she told CNN. You can read that in the Constitution.

For Teresa Alcala-Zamora, Spain’s separation of church and state is sacred.

She works for the Progressive Women’s Federation and likes the gender equality law, backed by Zapatero, to help working women.

Lola and Teresa are symbols of a divided Spain which is expected to choose either Zapatero or Rajoy as the next prime minister.

Islamic terrorists killed 191 people in the Madrid train bombings three days before the 2004 elections. In an eerie echo of the past, there was an attack on Friday, just two days before these elections. The government blamed the Basque separatist group ETA for the shooting death of a former Socialist town councilman in northern Spain.

After the shooting, political parties immediately cancelled the final campaign rallies scheduled for Friday night in Madrid, and many wondered what fallout this attack might have on the elections.

Rajoy has accused Zapatero of secretly negotiating with ETA, even after an ETA bomb at Madrid’s airport in December 2006 shattered peace talks aimed at ending ETA’s long fight for Basque independence, which is blamed for more than 800 deaths.

Zapatero denies that he’s soft on ETA, which is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

Millions of Spaniards, more than third of the 35 million eligible voters, watched the candidates face off in two televised debates, the first ones held here in 14 years.

They bickered over terrorism, but especially over the economy, which Rajoy has turned into a big campaign theme. He senses political opportunity as Spain’s 14-year economic boom is slowing. Unemployment is on the rise and construction has slowed as the real estate bubble bursts.

Juan Manuel Martinez has managed to keep his Madrid real estate business open, while thousands of others have closed. He blames the crisis on Zapatero.

Under the previous conservative government, we hired people and opened new branches. Under Zapatero, we’ve closed those office and laid people off. We’ve gone backward, Martinez told CNN.

A decade-long housing boom, exemplified by new vacation homes along the coast, is slumping. Excess supply and a credit crunch have converged at election time, menacing the prime minister.

A few months ago, it seemed very clear that the government was going to win the elections again. Not today, said Juan Jose Toribio, dean of the Madrid campus of Spain’s leading IESE business school.

Spain’s unemployment, already one of the highest in Europe, is rising.

Vanessa Hernandez was just fired as a secretary for a construction firm. We caught up with her at an unemployment office, where she inquired about her potential benefit payments.

There’s a lot of fear, Hernandez told CNN, in the southern Madrid suburb of Mostoles. The companies are afraid, too, because they don’t have construction projects, so they think the world is going to end.

All of this is a big change for Spain, once among the poorest countries of Europe, but after years of growth, now among the richest. A symbol of the new wealth that many Spaniards have grown comfortable with: four new office skyscrapers going up all at once in Madrid.

Zapatero insists there’s still growth in the economy, just less of it, and he says the the government’s budget surplus will help the nation through the problems.

The slowdown will not be deep or prolonged, Zapatero said in the first of the televised debates. We’ve created three million jobs and have a strong financial system.

Most of the polls give Zapatero a narrow lead, predicting he will repeat with a plurality in the 350-seat Spanish Parliament but not an outright majority.

Yet Rajoy has stayed close in the polls and predicts a surprise for Sunday, as voters weigh the Friday’s attack blamed on ETA and the faltering economy.
Terrorism returns to haunt Spanish polls – found here.


March 9, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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