The Campaign in Spain Could (Mainly) Be A Gain

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET
  • David Paul Appell Principal, EnLinea Media, Tripatini.com; author, Frommer's Miami & the Keys

This Sunday, U.S. progressives should pry their obsessive attention away from the Clinton-Obama drama for just a brief moment and spare a glance across the pond at the pivotal elections this Sunday in Iberia. Beyond the olé-olé tourist clichés and occasional Hollywood crossovers like Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, and Antonio Banderas, Spain's a country about which we know almost nothing compared to many of its Western European neighbors (quick, name the prime minister!). But this multinational social democracy of 45 million, the size of California plus South Carolina, has become not just a NATO and European Union stalwart but in some ways a beacon beyond its own borders - just this past Wednesday, France's daily Libération devoted its entire edition to its neighbor, splashing "Viva España!" on the front cover and praising it as "a prosperous, modern country" that's "become a magnet for European youth."

Indeed, the Euro zone's fourth largest economy has until recently been one of its stars of the past decade and a half, with double the continent's average growth rate, 40 percent of its new jobs, and a home ownership rate approaching 85 percent. And though its interests and influence remain more regional than anything else, Spain's still been something of a model for Latin America, providing not just strong investment but also the powerful example of a backwater dictatorship turned relatively affluent democracy (though Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has probably cut more slack than necessary to some of the hemisphere's current strongmen -- even approving arms sales to Venezuela's saber-rattling régime).

Spain's also played an important in the struggle against radical Islam, keeping troops in Afghanistan, for example, while at the same time trying to act as a bridge to the Islamic world. It's an issue that hits close to home; Muslims make up a big chunk of this country's immigrants, and a tiny number of them have turned to terrorism, most famously on "11-M," the March 2004 bombing in Madrid's Atocha train station that killed nearly 200 people and essentially tipped the election three days later to the PSOE, the Socialist Party.

Not only that, but since the '04 election, the government of the 47-year-old Zapatero has been one of the most progressive on the planet. The cabinet's equally divvied up between men and women for the first time, and the administration wasted no time moving to fulfill its progressive promises (instead of backing down à la Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" debacle). Among other things, it withdrew Spain's troops from the Iraq debacle; simplified cumbersome divorce red tape; officially condemned Generalissimo Francisco Franco's 36-year dictatorship and recognized its victims; replaced Catholicism instruction in public schools with civil education classes; launched campaigns to improve the status of women and against domestic violence; passed countrywide equal marriage rights including same-sex couples; legalized large numbers of illegal immigrants (partly at the request of big business); turned budget deficits into surpluses; and emphasized negotiation over confrontation toward the country's nationalities hankering for greater autonomy, particularly the Basques and Catalans. Zapatero and his center-left administration, noted Libération, have been "serious and responsible," and "non-bling-bling." Meanwhile, the constitutional monarch, Juan Carlos I, while certainly not perfect, has continued to conduct himself without the divine-right high-handedness of our own King George.

Heres the catch: though most Spaniards have been fine or even enthusiastic about most of the above, the right wing's been going predictably bonkers. The current mainstream incarnation of Franco's old fascist crowd, the ironically named the Partido Popular (PP), was booted from power in '04 because under then prime minister José María Aznar it aggressively spun the Atocha bombing as an ETA outrage, despite clear and mounting evidence that the culprits were Islamicists. (In Spain, you see, when voters are lied to, they actually throw the bums out.) That duplicitous pattern has held ever since: under bearded, bespectacled current chief Mariano Rajoy, the PP has never really admitted the PSOE won fair and square, and it's been behaving not unlike the GOP's pitbulls during the Clinton years: polarizing, attacking, and belittling the government's legitimacy in countless ways large and small. They've been joined by not only Spain's religious right and Catholic hierarchy, but even by the pope himself; fortunately, this clerical meddling has met with either resentment or yawns among most Spaniards, who are no longer the blindly fervent Catholics of yore.

Such attacks have been rampant during the current campaign (which at least has been mercifully short by U.S. standards), but when the vote finally comes this Sunday, March 9, Team ZP does have the edge. But just barely - by as little as three to four points, depending on the survey - perhaps partly because of the economic downturn that's recently taken hold here, too, and partly because the left is divided into the PSOE, the United Left, and various other small parties, while the right is more aligned behind the PP. In this campaign, the PP's been banking on the rising economic shakiness; hammering the Socialists for being too soft on the terrorists of the Basque separatist group ETA; taking a sometimes xenophobic hard line against what's become Europe's highest immigration level; and peddling the scare tactic that by granting the Catalans more autonomy, other Spaniards would suffer - that indeed, the entire country would fly apart in some kind of separatist cataclysm.

So yes, the PP have certainly been acting like prize cabrones (SOB's). Their current platform boils down to little more than gloom, doom, and opposition to any and all PSOE measures, and Rajoy in particular is even more colorless than ZP and not widely liked (for some partly because of his anti-gay hypocrisy, à la Larry Craig/Mark Foley - it's widely rumored, despite his being married to a woman, that he really plays for the "other team"). But we can't count the party out yet by a long shot; despite all its astonishing evolution, Spain remains a country with plenty of conservatives (the secretive Catholic cult Opus Dei, for example, was founded here and still has a good bit of power and support; even several versions of Franco's old Falange fascist party are still kicking around). That's why past PSOE governments, under the formidable Felipe González, mostly took it slow and kept it technocratic, so as not to open wounds that have torn the country apart in the past. Since '04, though, ZP and the PSOE have essentially been betting that in the last 33 years since the dictatorship died with Franco, Spain has matured and stabilized enough that they can pursue thoroughgoing social justice and bring the country fully into the 21st century without upsetting the whole apple cart.

One complication, of course, is that the Socialists stay in the driver's seat only with the support of several other parties in parliament. They hope to add enough seats Sunday to win an outright majority, and some observers think today's ETA assassination of a Socialist politician in the Basque country, which led the PSOE and PP to suspend the final two days of campaigning, could mobilize more Socialist voters at the last minute. In any case, while it's unlikely the PP will pull off an upset, the PSOE's majority could in fact get shaved. That means ZP & Co. will need to horsetrade again with small and regional parties, and probably haggle with Catalan and Basque nationalist blocs over even more autonomy - thus courting yet more polarization from the PP pitbulls. If the right were to somehow come out ahead, chances are it would be by such a small margin that undoing the progress of the past four years wouldn't be a piece of cake, especially because the PP, too, would need to barter for parliamentary support.

And so, if - and in my opinion that's a big if - our own country manages to more fully boot its own mendacious rabid right this November as the Spaniards did in '04 and are likely to ratify this weekend, progressives could benefit from looking to Spain's governing center-left for a lesson or two on what to do (and not to do) in managing economic growth while working for social and economic justice, exercising environmental responsibility, and keeping most of the country onboard even in the face of a take-no-prisoners right-wing opposition. More than a few Spaniards are pulling for us, it seems; the daily El Mundo recently ran a cartoon in which a woman having coffee with a fellow asks, "So who do you like more, Zapatero or Rajoy?" His answer: "Obama."