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Letter from Spain: Even With An Economy Hitting the Rocks, This Country's Still A Progressive Beacon (For Now)

"Dance the Chiki-Chiki," a sophomoric but brilliantly marketed Eurovision contest entry, was sweeping the country as I traveled through Spain on assignment just recently. My friends Carlos and Santiago celebrated their second wedding anniversary. Oh, and the defense minister gave birth.

In my ongoing effort to keep Huffpo readers apprised of what progressive government really looks like in 2008, I'm filing a dispatch marking Monday's three-month anniversary of the re-election of Spain's Socialist Party (PSOE) for a second consecutive term in office (its previous stint in power had ended in 1996). In an election on which I reported in a March 7 post, the party under 48-year-old prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a native of León in New Castile, beat back a strong challenge from its not particularly loyal opposition, the so-called Popular Party (PP), a pack of rightwingers who in their stridency and mendaciousness remarkably resemble our dear, zombified old GOP. More about them later.

Firstly, though, one of the things that's really interesting about the first months of the PSOE's second term is that even though its electoral lead was slightly shaved, it seems as though it's far from content to rest on the laurels of the first term's much needed reforms, especially in the social arena - such as fairly far-reaching progressive measures involving state relations with the country's increasingly unpopular Catholic Church; promotion of women's equality and domestic-violence prevention; and the equalization of marriage rights to include same-sex couples. Naturally, this has driven the right wing and the bishops in Spain - and across Europe, for that matter - absolutely batty, not unlike the way that the right became unhinged over Bill Clinton in the United States. So the Socialists have been abusively accused of everything from smug, multi-culti political correctness run amok to greasing the skids toward the very end of civilization (even the pope chimed in, attacking same-sex marriage on a visit to Spain in 2006). But even though it's much easier to recall governments here than it is in the U.S., unlike in our own country, Spanish voters haven't let them get away with it.

On this go-round, ZP (as Prime Minister Zapatero's sometimes dubbed) started out by indulging his reported fondness for symbolic gestures by delivering the world's first cabinet in which women outnumber men (nine to eight) - publicly ridiculed as "too pink" by Italy's unfortunately just re-elected premier Silvio Berlusconi, who seemingly picks his lady lackeys for their hotness (another reason he's been referred to in Spain's press as the "buffoon-king"?). Anyway, this included not just portfolios you might typically expect, such as social affairs, education, and certainly "equality," but quintessentially boy-identified jobs such as science and especially defense, handed to the 37-year-old former housing minister, Carme Chacón, who hails from the autonomous region of Catalonia. Images of Chacón reviewing the troops complete with baby bump - not just in Spain but in Afghanistan and Lebanon - made a splash around the world, and though right now she's on maternity leave, so far it seems she's been doing her job pretty well (the only kerfuffle of note being kvetching from some male staffers about the new filters put in place to cut out loafing on the job at Internet sports and girlie sites).

And on a major front over which the Socialists have been raked over the coals - supposedly being "soft" on Basque separatism and terrorism - there's also been good news. Zapatero broke off talks with the longtime terrorist gang ETA in 2006 after it broke a ceasefire with a car bomb at Madrid's airport, and on May 23 the already weakened ETA was struck another huge blow when a French-Spanish police operation captured its suspected political chief, a snarling Javier López Peña, at a safehouse in Bordeaux. Around the same time, Zapatero won kudos from the public by giving the back of his hand to a proposal from Carlos Ibarretxe, the president of the autonomous Basque government, to hold a referendum on starting talks on the region's future - presumably including an independence option. Like ossified old John McCain, the PP loves to pretend that talking to one's enemies somehow equates to giving in to them, so these latest developments have probably laid that canard to rest at least a little bit for the time being by demonstrating that the PSOE is willing to negotiate but not at any price.

In the meantime, the opposition Partido Popular has - surprise, surprise - continued its obstructionist ways. Latest example: refusing to comply with national laws mandating civics classes in schools that teach tolerance and other such "PC drivel" in the regions and cities in which it's in power, such as Madrid, Valencia, and Galicia (Spain is more centralized in some policymaking areas than is the U.S.). But during my visit, every corner of the media was far more obsessed about what's turning into an internal civil war, triggered by the resignation of María San Gil, the PP's leader in the Basque country. She and other hardliners have the knives out for 53-year-old leader Mariano Rajoy, feeling he and his supporters are going all wobbly in their desperation to pull the party to the center so it can finally start winning national elections again. Their feeling seems to be that, golly, before you know it, they'll all turn into social democrats! And so they've been sniping away, ironically much the same way Team Rajoy spent the last four years yapping at Zapatero's heels. The last PP prime minister (and Charlie-Chaplin-as-Adolf-Hitler lookalike) José María Aznar has endorsed the hardliners, but even the weight of George W. Bush's eager Iraq war playmate is unlikely to help them prevail, because Rajoy has on his side both the party machinery and an impeccably logical argument.

The real question is, will all the bloodletting lead to a weakening or even implosion of the party, with unforeseen consequences to national politics? The PP still holds 255 out of 558 seats in parliament, and as much as I savor the spectacle of these reprobates bashing each other (a local news magazine Photoshopped the major players' heads into a chaotic scene from the Marx brothers' A Night at the Opera), every ruling party needs some kind of brake. Supine opposition plus absolute power corrupt absolutely, as the last seven years of Bush-Cheney have amply proved.

In addition, there are still plenty of challenges ahead for Spain and the PSOE. For starters, there are signs of severe drought possible in some parts of the country this summer. And as in the U.S., the housing bubble that was the big engine of economic growth has burst this year, drastically slowing economic growth, and while the government has been doing what it can, things are getting tight for more than a few Spaniards. That will inevitably aggravate the other ticking bomb in this country: not ETA but immigration. The astonishing boom of the past few years along with generous state benefits have pulled millions of jobseekers from Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America - many don't assimilate, and even illegals can saunter into a welfare office and leave with a card entitling them to free medical care and a raft of other goodies, no questions asked. As I traveled about - even to places like Catalonia's little beach town of Torredembarra; Bilbao in the Basque country; and Oviedo, the gracious and until recently lily-white capital of next-door Asturias - I spotted scores of black Africans and headscarf-wearing Moroccan women. Zapatero and company have admittedly had their heads in the sand somewhat on this issue - almost seeming to hope that it will all somehow work out - but as the job market tightens further and immigrant crime starts rising as a result, they'll find themselves facing just the kinds of questions and criticisms U.S. politicians and voters have been struggling with of late.

So yes, Spain has especially in the last four years become an economic, social, and political model of democratic progressivism - a Cuban refugee from Fidel Castro now living in the northern city of Gijón told me, "now this is the humane socialism I was taught in Cuba" (a vision long since betrayed by the Castro dictatorship, of course). But the big question is will we see the deepening and widening of reform, now that Zapatero and company have won a second time in a row in a general election less ambiguous than the one held right after the Atocha train station bombing in March 2004? Or will A. the PP get its act together and savagely sabotage the government; B. the contracting economy constrain and eventually even sink the Socialists; and/or C. immigration become a hot-button issue that drowns out all else? Any one of these could end up defining the second term and putting that progressivism to its toughest test yet.