Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has won re-election in Spain. The Socialist Party (PSOE) is thought to have benefitted from high voter turnout two days after a Basque politician's murder shocked the country.
A high turnout helped Zapatero
Socialists began celebrating their win soon after polls closed on Sunday, March 9.
"It is a great victory," the Socialist Party's secretary general, Jose Blanco, annnounced on television. "It is a victory for all citizens."
The party won 169 spots in the 350-seat lower house.
With nearly all votes from Sunday's election counted, Zapatero's Socialist Party had 44 percent, versus 40 percent for the conservative People's Party.
The result give the Socialists a plurality, though they're just shy of the outright 176-seat majority needed to govern alone. Zapatero had been hoping to end his reliance on the support of far-left and regionalist parties, which he has counted on during the past four years.
About 35 million people were eligible to elect the parliament as well as 208 of the 264 members of the Senate.
Conservatives had hoped for a comeback
Pio Garcia Escudero, the conservative People's Party (PP)campaign director, conceded defeat Sunday night.
"I congratulate the Socialist party," Garcia Escudero has told a press conference in Madrid. "It appears [their] victory is clear."
The loss was a tough blow to the PP, lead by Mariano Rajoy. The party seemed unsure during the campaign of how to best stop Zapatero's momentum. Since being elected in 2004, the Socialists have pushed through sweeping social changes, turning Spain into one of Europe's most liberal countries on issues such as gay marriage. Zapatero has also sped up divorce, ended compulsory religious education and granted amnesty to illegal immigrants.
The economy was seen as the central theme in the elections, and the PP tried to convince voters it could best handle the economic challenges and keep the country prosperous.
Spain's economy has boomed in the past decade. Yet the annual growth rate could sink as low as 2 percent in 2008. And Spaniards have worried about unemployment as the country's construction sector has stagnated.
Economy, immigration don't tip vote
Zapatero will get four more years
The PP had also attacked Zapatero for giving 600,000 illegal immigrants the opportunity to have their status “regularized.” Rajoy suggested that immigrants should sign an "integration contract" where they promise to respect Spain's laws and customs.
Rosa Caballero, an insurance worker in Madrid, told AFP that she was angry after the train bombings in 2004. Her vote then was “born of fury and indignation” over the train bombings in Madrid which killed 191 people. Islamist terrorists were responsible, although the PP originally blamed the Basque separatist group ETA.
Caballero told AFP she voted for the Scialists again on Sunday, as did her 19-year-old son, Ruben, who said he wasn't convinced by the PP arguments on the economy and immigration.
"The slowing of the economy is widespread across Europe," he said. "Immigrants are not a problem here. They live here happily and more of them should be regularized.”
Socialists get boost from high turnout
Rajoy was unable to convince voters
Rajoy's party traditionally enjoys stronger voter turnout among supporters than the Socialists, whose voters tend to stay home.
Voter turnout was expected to be slightly below the 76 percent in the 2004 elections, when voters turned out en masse to get rid of the ruling conservatives.
The high turnout in 2004 was caused by anger over the PP's insistence on blaming the Basque separatist group ETA for deadly train bombings in Madrid a few days before the vote.
Early indications showed Islamist radicals were responsible. Many voters felt Spain was attacked because of the conservative government's alliance with the United States in fighting in Iraq and accused then-PP Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of deliberately misleading them.
Basques stay home
ETA was blamed for Friday's assassination
While voter turnout this time was relatively high, many Basques stayed home. Only 53 percent of eligible voters in the Basque country cast ballots, according to preliminary election figures. That was well below the 75 percent turnout that was expected in the rest of Spain.
On Friday, a former Socialist town council member was killed near the coastal city of San Sebastian. All parties immediately blamed the violent separatist group ETA, which has been blamed for more than 800 death in Spain during the past four decades. ETA has not claimed responsibility for the killing, although police say that it was typical of an ETA-style political assassination. Isaias Carrasco, who gave up his body guard when he didn't win re-election last fall, was shot outside his home.
ETA supporters urged Basques to boycott the elections.
"We must vote to teach the terrorists a lesson," Jose Angel, a childhood friend of Carrasco's, said as he went to cast his ballot Sunday. "I hope people turn out to vote against everything that has happened.
Carrasco's 19-year-old daughter made an emotional appeal Saturday for voters to turn out in large numbers to honor her father and "defeat ETA.”
ETA seen as weak
A vote against ETA
ETA says it wants independence for the Basque region in northern Spain. Opinion polls show that while many Basques are unhappy with their current status as an autonomous region, most don't want complete independence from Spain. And only a small fraction support ETA.
Many Spanish commentators felt Friday's assassination showed the group's weakness and desperation.
Zapatero had made the controversial move of launching peace talks with ETA, which many felt gave the group legitimacy. He abandoned them after ETA killed two people with a car bomb in December 2006. He has been repeatedly slammed by the PP for negotiating with ETA, which is considered a terrorist group by Spain, the European Union and the United States. Both parties have promised not to negotiate with ETA.