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Opinion: Spanish Socialists Can't Risk Complacency

Spain's ruling Socialists won a second term in elections Sunday, March 9, but they're not in a position to rest on the laurels, says Guenther Maihold from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

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Surveys ahead of Sunday's election predicted a tight race, and that's exactly what it was. Ultimately, voters might have opted for giving Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero a second term, but his victory was by no means a resounding one. His Socialist government is now set to continue on its path with an increased tally of seats -- not so much in comparison to the opposition Popular Party (PP) of Mariano Rajoy but definitely in comparison to the regional parties, which have seen their influence in Spanish politics subside. The ruling Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) might still be short of an absolute majority, but Zapatero's party does have an expanded majority with 16 more seats than the PP. And for opposition leader Mariano Rajoy, it was the second time he'd failed to lead his party to power.

Guenther Maihold

Guenther Maihold

But the election reflected something of a political impasse. Divided into two, almost equally large camps, the public is unwilling to give either the Socialists or the Popular Party a clear majority. Both parties are seemingly unable to break the deadlock -- and the country will continue to be blocked by its polarization. Whether the PP will be able to relinquish its confrontational tactics and find a way back to political consensus depends largely on how open to the opposition the government is now prepared to be.

Dominated by domestic policy issues, the campaign pitted two diverging versions of Spanish society against one another. While the PP represents a nation based on Catholic values, Zapatero has always championed the diversity of modern Spain, a country tolerant of its minorities and immigrants. The Catholic Church backed the opposition, and will inevitably be stung by its defeat -- which will result in heightened tension between the Socialist government and the conservative leader of the Spanish Bishops' Conference Cardinal Rouco Varela. The role of the church is, after all, a central conflict within Spanish society -- and looks set to remain so.

The Spanish economy, meanwhile, has not been immune to the current turbulence on the international financial markets and growth has fallen off. Regaining economic stability will therefore be a key task for Zapatero's government. It will also have to demonstrate resolve in its dealings with the Basque separatist group ETA, while keeping peace talks firmly on the agenda.

On the international stage, Spain will remain a known quantity. No one need fear any unexpected new departures in terms of foreign policy, although Spain would do well to raise its international profile if it wants to fulfill its potential.

Günther Maihold is deputy director at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (jp)

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