14/03/2004 - Analysis
The Spanish have been called to ballot on 14th March for the ninth time since democratic transition in order to renew the two Chambers of Parliament. José Maria Aznar, who has been Prime Minister since March 1996, announced that he will not stand and after having spent eight years as head of State has chosen to retire from national political life. In a few weeks time a new figure will be responsible for representing Spain and this will either be Mariano Rajoy, leader of the Popular Party and successor to José Maria Aznar, or José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, secretary general of the Socialist Party (PSOE).
The Spanish Political System
Parliament (Cortes generales) comprises two Chambers: the Senate and the Congress of Representatives. This comprises three to four hundred MP's elected at least every four years by plurinominal proportional vote (except in Ceuta and Melilla) within the Spanish provinces. Each of the country's fifty provinces has at least two representatives (one each for Ceuta and Melilla), the remainder being divided amongst the provinces depending on the size of the population. The average number of seats per constituency is 6.7. A list has to win a minimum of 3% of the vote in order to be represented in the Congress of Representatives.
Twelve political parties are represented in the present Congress of Representatives:
- The Popular Party (PP), Prime Minister José Maria Aznar's Conservative movement founded in 1977 and in power since 1996;
- The Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), the main opposition party founded in 1879 and that governed Spain from 1982 to 1996. It is led by José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero;
- Izquierda unida (IU), a leftwing electoral alliance born 1986;
- Convergencia i union de Catalunya (CiU), a Catalan electoral alliance founded in 1978, led for a long time by Jordi Pujol but now led by Artur Mas;
- The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), a Nationalist Christian Democratic Party founded in 1984;
- The Galician Nationalist Block (BNG), a nationalist party founded in 1982 led by José Manuel Beiras;
- The Canary Island Coalition (CC), a regionalist movement allied to the Popular Party in Parliament;
- The Andalusian Party (PA), a party for whom the main claim comprises the autonomy of Andalusia;
- Esquerra republicana de Catalunya (ERC), a leftwing Catalan movement created in 1931 that dominated the political scene until the start of the Spanish Civil War. The party is led by. Josep Lluis Carod-Rovira;
- Iniciativa per Catalunya-Els Verds (IC-V), an alliance of Catalan regionalists and ecologists;
- Eusko Alkartasuna (EA), a nationalist, social democrat movement that was born of the division of the Basque Nationalist Party founded in 1986;
- Chunta aragonesista (CHA), a regionalist nationalist party for a greater autonomy of Aragon.
The Senate comprises two hundred and eight members elected by universal suffrage (provincial senators) and forty nine representatives appointed by the 17 autonomous communities (community senators). Each province elects four provincial senators whatever the number of inhabitants and except for Ceuta and Melilla that elects two and the Balearic and Canary Islands that elect three for each of the major islands (Grand Canaria, Mallorca and Tenerife) and one for the smallest (Ibiza-Formentera, Menorca, Fuerteventura, Gomero, Hierro, Lanzarote and Palma). Each autonomous community elects a community senator as well as an additional senator for each million inhabitants.
The senatorial elections take place on the same day as those for the Congress of Representatives. The vote is also plurinominal, except for on some islands.
The present political situation
José Maria Aznar has remained faithful to his promise made in 1996 that after two mandates at the head of government he would not stand in the following general elections. "I have the honour and pride to have served Spain. I am leaving but my conscience is clear and is serenely proud and satisfied. I honestly believe that in 2004 Spain is now a better place than it was in 1996", declared the Prime Minister. He will be replaced as head of the Popular Party by his former vice president Mariano Rajoy. This 48 year old Galician has occupied a number of ministerial positions during the eight years of the Aznar government (minister of the Civil Service, Education and Culture, Home Minister), in 2000 he became vice president and then in July 2002 government spokesperson. The leader of the Popular Party will confront the 43 year old leader of the Socialist Party, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who was appointed just after the last elections on 26th March 2000.
The Socialist Party recently came to an electoral agreement with the Greens. This agreement plans for four members of the ecologist movement to be included on the socialist lists during the election on 14th March next. Two Green representatives will be placed eighth on the electoral lists in the general elections in the provinces of Seville and Valencia and two others third in the partial senatorial elections in the region of Madrid and the province of Teruel. An ecologist representative will also be amongst the first twenty candidates on the PSOE list in the European elections in June next. The ecologists led by José Maria Mendiluce, have no representative to date in the Congress of Representatives or in the Senate. Total uncertainty surrounds the possibility of a coalition between Socialists, Communists and the Catalan Nationalists is concerned.
The Popular Party that has been at the head of the country since 5th March 1996 has not really experienced any waning in its power. Over the last two years the Conservative party has however had to face some political crises. The General Strike on 20th June 2002 against the reform of unemployment benefit led to a government u-turn in the following autumn and the suppression of nearly all of the decretazo, decrees that had been the source of the biggest popular movement since economic transition. On 19th November of the same year the sinking of the Prestige off the Galician coast led to a major oil slick. José Maria Aznar and his government were criticised for the management of this ecological and economic crisis. Although six months later the Socialists won most of the big towns in Galicia during the local elections on 25th May 2003 (Corona, Vigo, Lugo and Santiago de Compostela), the Popular Party retained Orense, won back Ferrol and remained in the majority in Muxia, three towns on the coast where the ship was wrecked.
Last year the Prime Minister supported the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq and did not hesitate to go against the opinion of most of its citizens (90% of the Spanish said they were against this position on several occasions) who were the greatest in number in Europe in mobilising against the war. The population did not hold this position against José Maria Aznar and his government since the Popular Party still won the local elections on 25th May 2003 although they have lost 6% of their electorate since the last local election in 1999 - this time round they won a greater number of town councillors and more votes in the major towns than the Socialist Party. The Popular Party also came out victor in nine of the thirteen autonomous communities in which the regional elections were held on the same day.
For their part the Socialists have also experienced internal problems. In less than a year they have come through two political crises. Whilst on 25th May 2003 the PSOE, in alliance with the Izquierda unida (IU), just managed to win the region of Madrid (56 seats in comparison with 55 for the Popular Party), the defection by two Socialist representatives during the first meeting of the new Regional Assembly enabled the Popular Party (PP) to win the presidency of the region. Following the deadlock of the institutions after this vote the regional Parliament was dissolved and new elections, called for on 26th October - these were won by the Popular Party with 48.45% of the vote (57 seats), versus 38.97% for the Socialist Party (45 seats) and 8.49% for the Izquierda unida (9 seats). In May the Socialist Party justified the defection of its representatives by a conspiracy that was supposed to have been concocted by some real estate businessmen, who were close to the Popular Party and opposed to the arrival of a leftwing movement in a position of power. The work undertaken by the parliamentary enquiry commission responsible for this affair during the summer did not manage to reveal the existence of any type of corruption. The political scandal was finally fatal to the leftwing who were punished by 4.4 million voters in the Madrid region.
More recently Catalunya experienced problems. On 26th January the head councillor of the Catalan Government, Josep Lluis Carod Rovira, president of the Esquerra republicana de Catalunya (ERC), a leftwing movement, admitted having had secret meetings with the leader of the Basque terrorist movement ETA.. Whilst José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, condemned this meeting he believed that it was up to Pasqual Maragall (PSC), Socialist president of the Catalan government to settle this problem before requesting the resignation of Josep Lluis Carod Rovira. The head of the Catalan executive accepted the departure of the government's number two from his position but maintained him as a minister without a portfolio within his government. Josep Lluis Carod Rovira was to lead his party's list during the general elections on 14th March next. The Socialists then showed how embarrassed they were and the difficulty they were experiencing in positioning themselves on this subject that was nevertheless the subject of a consensus amongst the population. Indeed the fight against terrorism is a policy that is embraced by both the ruling power and the opposition.
The Socialists seem to be confident about the regaining power. "We are capable of winning a great enough majority", maintained their Secretary General. José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero also announced that the first law that his party would vote in once in power would involve domestic violence which is suffered by a great number of women (according to statistics, 30,000 cases of domestic violence were recorded in 2003 and 70 women were murdered during the same year during arguments with their partners). The Socialist leader also promised to bring Spain out of its "isolation" into which, according to him, it has been led by José Maria Aznar after supporting the American intervention in Iraq. "I want to be president of a government that will take Spain out of the Azores trio (allusion made to the meeting between José Maria Aznar, George Bush and Tony Blair on 16th March 2003). I want to see my country allied to Lula, Kofi Annan, Lagos and Jacques Chirac", he declared, accusing the Aznar government of having "fractured Europe". The head of the opposition who assured the military of his total support announced that he would order the withdrawal of the troops deployed in Iraq if the United Nations did not take the situation into hand. A contingent of one thousand three hundred soldiers is stationed at present in Iraq.
At the beginning of January José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero presented his campaign team, comprising ten politicians including Pedro Solbes, the present European commissioner for economic affairs and Miguel Angel Moratinos, former European envoy in the Middle East.
The election stakes
The Socialist Party chose the reform of the State as one of the themes of its electoral campaign, suggesting the increase in competencies of the country's 17 autonomous communities and to transform the Senate into a Chamber of Territorial Representatives. The PSOE reform aims to improve the representation and participation of the Spanish regions and plans for the direct and permanent participation of the autonomous communities in international organisations, notably the European ones and the institution of an annual conference between the regional presidents and the head of central government. The Socialist measures suggested when the Basque government launched a true wave of revolt against the State were the source of a controversy that the Popular Party did not hesitate to stir up. Indeed on 25th October the head of the Basque executive Juan José Ibarrexte made his plan, called Ibarrexte, official claiming a status of "free association with Spain" for the Basque Country, full prerogative in some areas (justice, immigration, etc.) and above all the right to self determination and therefore a change in the status of autonomy dating back to 25th October 1979. "We, the Basques, have old historical rights and we now want to exercise that sovereignty", he declared. In order for this project to be adopted it requires approval by two thirds of the Spanish Parliament, a revision of the constitution and ratification by referendum - it was rejected by two of the country's major political movements. At the same time the support provided by José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to Pasqual Maragall, secretary general of the Catalan Socialist Party and his desire to review the status of Catalunya was the source of a certain amount of disquiet within the Socialist Party that was not quelled when the second in command of the Catalan executive met recently with the leaders of the Basque terrorist organisation ETA..
Within the PSOE differences have emerged on the conception of the unity of the States that José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero seems to find difficult in calming. Mid January, Juan Carlos Rodriguez Ibarra, Socialist president of the Estremadura, suggested the exclusion from the Congress of Representatives of movements who only win 5% of the vote. This proposal that would result in the exclusion of all the nationalist parties from the Chamber was immediately rejected by most of the Socialists but increased the impression of confusion that reigns within the main opposition movement and increased doubts about the PSOE's abilities to face those in favour of Basque or Catalan independence.
The Popular Party, that has tried to focus the electoral campaign on the country's unity and on the Spanish territorial model, has asserted its desire to maintain regional autonomy as defined by the Constitution in 1978 and has warned the population against "the adventure" that an increase in autonomy would represent. "The PSOE is no longer a national party. It has seventeen programmes, one for each autonomous region", repeat the Popular Party candidates. On the 25th anniversary of the Constitution, the Carta Magna, on 6th December last, José Maria Aznar positioned himself firmly in favour of the 1978 text and warned of the danger that those he qualifies as "revisionists" i.e. the Basque or Catalan nationalists, are bringing to bear over Spain's future.
José Maria Aznar composed his own eulogy a few weeks ago. "Since 1996 4.3 million more people are at work in Spain, unemployment has dropped from 23% to 11%, the economy has grown by 64% and the revenue per inhabitant has increased by 36%. Spain needs the Popular Party's guarantee to continue on the road towards progress and institutional stability. We were elected to respect our commitments and not to disappoint and I am asking you not to forget this on 14th March when the well being and prosperity of all is at stake", he declared. Although this assessment is certainly biased the good health of the Iberian Peninsula's economy is a reality. Hence since 1997, average growth has reached 4% of the GDP (2,4% last year, in comparison with 0.5% in the euro zone). However, much still needs to be achieved in the social sphere: Unemployment is still the highest in the EU and the number of unstable jobs is great (30%). A recent study by the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona revealed that between 1993 and 2001 the weight of social expenditure in comparison with the GDP has decreased from 24% to 20.1% and that the country's differential with the European average has risen from 4.8 to 7.2 points. The economic crisis, the creation of jobs and security are the major issues at heart in Spain. The Socialists find it difficult to lay down a real alternative in terms of these problems.
According to all of the opinion polls the Popular Party is far ahead of the Socialist Party. The most recent survey undertaken by Sigma Dos and published by El Mundo on 8th February indicated that the Popular Party would win 44.3% of the vote versus 34.8% for the Socialist Party. The daily comments the survey as follows: "The Popular Party is certain to win but José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero might stop prevent it winning on overall majority". We should also say that the number of people who are undecided is still quite high. Polls forecast that the small parties will progress. Izquierda unida (IU) might win between 8 to 11 seats, the Esquerra republicana de Catalunya (ERC) might increase from 1 to 4 seats and the Canary Island Coalition (CC), allied to the Popular Party in Parliament might win five representatives. Finally the Popular Party's candidate Mariano Rajoy achieves the best score in terms of image in comparison with his Socialist adversary José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (5.25 points, versus 4.59). The electoral campaign will officially start on 27th February and will end on 12th March. Parallel to the general election there will also be regional elections in Andalusia.
Reminder of the general election results March 2000
Participation rate: 69.98%
Source: Spanish MP's Congress