29/02/2008 - D-7
35.3 million Spanish are being called to ballot on 9th March next to renew the Parliament (Cortes Generales) i.e. 350 MPs and 208 Senators. The official campaign started on 22nd February and will end on 7th March. The race promises to be tightly run between the two main parties – the Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) led by José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and the People's Party (PP) led by Mariano Rajoy – who are running neck and neck in the polls.
On 21st February Economy Minister Pedro Solbes discussed economic issues on the TV channel Antena 3 with Manuel Pizarro, former leader of Endesa and present board member of the biggest telecommunications companies in Spain, Telefonica – potentially the latter may become Economy Minister if the PP wins. "The Spanish have a choice between two models: that of the socialists – which is one of unemployment, inflation and uncertainty and the alternative model put forward by the People's Party which is the one of security and employment," maintains Manuel Pizarro. Pedro Solbes stressed that the PP's proposals to decrease taxes "benefit the richest and endanger social programmes." Most viewers (47.4%) found the Economy Minister more convincing than his adversary (37.1%) according to the polls undertaken after the programme.
On 25th February Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero confronted PP leader, Mariano Rajoy in a televised debate that was broadcast by around twelve national and regional channels, a somewhat unusual operation in a country that has only experienced two pre-electoral debates since the death of the dictator Franco in 1975. The last one brought Felipe Gonzalez (PSOE) against José Maria Aznar (PP) in 1993. 13 million viewers followed the debate.
"You are a liar," declared Mariano Rajoy addressing the Prime Minister with regard to the negotiations undertaken with the Basque separatist and terrorist movement ETA. "You are amongst the liars. You lied to make people believe in a conspiracy, you are one of the liars," answered the Prime Minister referring to one of the terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda on 11th March 2004. José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero also pointed to the fact that the opposition had not supported him in his fight against Basque separatist terrorism which in Spain traditionally rallies both ends of the political scale. The tone of the debate was quite aggressive as it has been over the past four years during which time the PP has never really succeeded in recovering from its defeat in the elections that took place on 14th March 2004.
A poll undertaken by Metroscopia for the daily El Pais shows that 46% of viewers believe that José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero emerged victorious from this debate in comparison with 42% who believed that Mariano Rajoy was more convincing. A poll by Sigma for El Mundo agrees with this: 45.5% of viewers believed that the Prime Minister won the debate in comparison with 42% for Mariano Rajoy.
The fight against the Basque terrorist organisation ETA has increased over the last few months. Many arrests have taken place and the general prosecutor Baltazar Garzon has suspended activities of two Basque parties for three years a measure which can be extended for a further two years: the Communist Party of Basque Territories (PCTV-EHAK) and Basque Nationalist Action (ANV). On 10th February fourteen Batasuna leaders (a nationalist coalition of Marxist-Leninist ideology) were arrested. On 14th February four people, including two suspected members of ETA (José Antonio Martinez Mur and his partner Asuncion Bengoechea Arano) were arrested in Saint-Jean-de-Luz (France). They are suspected of having taken part in the Elurra commando which led to the deaths of two people and injured 18 at Madrid airport in an attack on 30th December 2006. The authorities maintain that since last autumn about ten attacks have been foiled and three terrorist commandos dismantled. On 23rd February the police exploded a bomb placed by ETA near Bilbao. "We believe that ETA will try to kill before the elections," declared Home Minister, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba who has decreed a state of maximum alert; this is quite normal procedure in a country where terrorism comprises an unpredictable element every time there is an election.
The mobilisation of José Luis Rodrguez Zapatero's government has removed the Basque issue from the electoral campaign. Although the Prime Minister admitted that negotiations with ETA had continued after the Madrid attack he said on 11th February that "there will be no dialogue with ETA during the next term in office." The main criticism made of the PSOE is not so much its failure, shared by all previous governments over the last 33 years, but the fact that it accepted negotiations on the basis of ETA's political agenda.
"It is surprising that José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero did not call for elections earlier," declared Juan Carlos Martinez Lazaro, professor of economy at the Business School of Madrid who added "in terms of electoral strategy we have made a mistake since from now on economic results will not be as good." "The Spanish will go to ballot when economic indicators which affect them most are declining rapidly," confirms Javier Perez de Azpillaga, an economist at Goldman Sachs. The slowing in the economy is the focus of electoral debates. According to a poll published on 10th February in the daily El Pais, 50% of Spaniards believe that the economic situation is bad.
The PSOE is however promoting its good economic results: 3.8% GDP growth in 2007, i.e. above the average of the countries in the euro area (2.7%), 3 million jobs created over four years, an unemployment level that has dropped to 8.6%, for the first time in Spanish history a GDP per capita that rises above that of Italy and which is higher than the EU average along with a budgetary surplus of 50 billion euro i.e. 2.3% of the GDP. The PSOE does however tend to minimise the economic slowing of the last few months. "Of course people will feel worried but there is no need to take emergency measures," maintains the Economy minister, Pedro Solbes, who adds, "it is true that inflation lay at 3% in 2003 but the barrel of oil cost 28 dollars. Last year our inflation rose to 4.3% but the barrel cost 72.5 dollars." The government highlights the fact that public surplus provides it with the means to compensate for the decline in the world's economic situation. On this point the electoral promises made by the PP do not differ greatly from that of the PSOE, with both parties planning to reduce taxes and increase wages and social aid to boost consumption.
Housing prices that have doubled since 1998 started to drop after the sub-prime crisis in the USA, leading the construction industry and real estate into depression. The number of building sites is due to lie at 450,000 this year against 700,000 in 2006 i.e. more than in France, the UK and Germany together. GDP growth in the fourth quarter of 2007 was the lowest since September 2005 (3.5%) and many economists are forecasting that it will not rise above 2.5% in 2008. For the first time in five years the unemployment rate increased by 0.6 points in the fourth quarter of 2007, inflation remained high and represents twice that of the EU average. Finally the consumer confidence index has declined for the 9th consecutive month.
Spain seems to have reached the end of an economic cycle. Over the last 30 years it has caught up in economic terms, notably thanks to its accession to the European Union. Spain like Ireland has been one of the major European economic success stories and is the perfect example of the leverage provided by joining the EU. But the Spanish economy needs in depth reform: technological specialisation, increased competitiveness, productivity, market flexibility and investments in research and development (1.2% of the GDP below the other "major" European countries).
Apart from buying power, immigration has also become one of the main themes of the campaign for the first time in the country's history. Foreigners represent around 10% of the population (23% in Catalonia). Mariano Rajoy, who forced the issue during the electoral debate, is suggesting the creation of an immigration agency, the establishment of a visa point system to encourage foreigners believed best able to integrate and he hopes to look into the issue of the veil. He would also like to oblige foreigners to sign an integration contract when they renew their residence permit. "If the People's Party wins the elections there will never be any mass legalisation of illegal immigrants," he maintains. The last legalisation of illegal immigrants in Spain in 2006 involved 600,000 people.
The PSOE is challenging the immigration figures put forward by the PP. Labour and Social Affairs Minister, Jesus Caldera maintains that the number of illegal immigrations is lower than 300,000 (1 million according to the PP) and that this figure is declining. On 9th February Interior Minister, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba declared that 18,000 illegal immigrants had arrived in the Canary Islands and the South of Spain in 2007, i.e. -54% in comparison with 2006. Finally José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero recalls that Mariano Rajoy undertook five major legalisation operations with regard to illegal immigrants when he was Home Minister.
However immigration is quoted as one of the Spanish population's main concerns – 56% according to the polls. The slowing of activity in the building industry which employs many unqualified people and the decline of the Spanish economy in general will probably have an extreme effect on immigrants who are traditionally the first to be dismissed – and this may very well lead to social tension.
On 20th February the Prime Minister received the support from a "cultural coalition" which maintained that it represented a million employees; it published a manifesto declaring "the rejection of and indignation about the libellous campaign undertaken by the PP." At the beginning of the month 5000 personalities: artists, academics and scientists – published a support platform entitled PAZ (peace in Spanish) dedicated to José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in which they defend "the government's reasonably positive management" and says that it is pleased with the approval of homosexual marriage and the law on gender equality, at the same time they criticise the "retrograde, radical rightwing." Amongst the artists who have signed this text are: film producer Pedro Almodovar, painter and sculptor Miguel Barcela and writer Juan Goytisolo. "I shall leave the artists with Zapatero who gives them everything they want," commented Mariano Rajoy.
According to political analyst Ismael Crespo three factors may influence the final result of the elections on 9th March: mobilisation (he believes that if it is over 70%, the PSOE will almost be sure of victory), a possible attack by ETA and televised debates. The PSOE fears the decline in enthusiasm on the part of its supporters as in the local elections on 27th May last, notably in Andalusia and Catalonia, two regions that are its most important sources of votes. During the general election on 14th March 2004 the turn-out rate was exceptional (77.21%), with voters notably participating because of the disastrous management of the 11th March attacks by José Maria Aznar and against the war in Iraq. "We are calling for as many people to vote as possible because the People's Party is hoping to win back power thanks to a high abstention rate," declared José Blanco, the PSOE's N°2.
The most recent polls forecast victory for the PSOE.
A poll by Metroscopia for the daily El Pais forecast 42.3% for the PSOE and 38.6% for the PP. A second poll by Publiscopio for the daily Publico credits the PSOE with 44% versus 40% for the PP. Finally a third poll by Opina for radio Cadena Ser shows that the PSOE would win 44.5% versus 41.5% for the PP.
Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's popularity rating is still higher than that of Mariano Rajoy. There has not been one poll since the start of the electoral campaign that has declared the PP in the lead with regard to voting intentions.
If the result of the election on 9th March is as close as forecast in the polls, victory will belong to the party which is able to ally itself with "the small" parties, notably the regional ones.