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Spain's Re-Elected Zapatero Faces Long List of Challenges

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's premiership was reconfirmed by parliament Friday, April 11. He faces a second term of economic challenges and continuing concerns over regional separatism.

Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at a pre-electoral party rally in Madrid

Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has a lot to do in his second term

The new legislature was, however, opening in a more conciliatory political atmosphere than the previous one, making it easier for Spanish Socialist leader Zapatero to try to buttress up the economy and to seek support in the fight against the militant Basque separatist group ETA.

The 47-year-old was the first Spanish prime minister elected in a popular vote to be reconfirmed with a simple majority in a second round of voting, after failing to win an absolute majority in the first round.

The Socialists increased their number of seats by five to 169 in the 350-member parliament, but did not get an absolute majority in the elections a month ago.

Zapatero had deliberately opted for a simple majority in the parliamentary vote in order to maintain his political independence from Basque and Catalan regionalists, whose votes could have allowed him to be elected in the first round, but who would have demanded a price for their support.

The government's concessions to regions demanding more autonomy had earlier created divisions with the opposition conservatives, who accused Zapatero of endangering the unity of Spain.

Growing calls for autonomy

During the upcoming legislature, it is expected that the Basques will attempt to stage a regional referendum on a self-government bordering on independence, which the Socialists were planning to prevent by offering the region more autonomy instead.

Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero

Spain's finances are another area of concern for the PM

Basque regional premier Juan Jose Ibarretxe believes the referendum could help to end the violence associated with the Basque separatist group ETA, which has killed three people since negotiations between ETA and Madrid collapsed in 2006.

The negotiation attempt sparked a barrage of criticism from the conservative People's Party (PP), which slammed the government for "surrendering" to terrorists.

Zapatero has resumed police crackdowns against ETA and made it understood that he will not talk to the group again, a move which is expected to help to pacify the political atmosphere.

Zapatero has also pledged to seek a cross-party consensus on other issues including a reform of regional financial autonomy rule, Spain's Europe policy and judicial reform.

The previous legislature was marked by liberal social reforms, such as gay marriage and speedy divorce. The issues divided the country and Catholic clergymen lambasted the government at rallies in defense of the traditional family.

The government was not, however, expected to pursue other controversial reforms, such as a more liberal abortion law or the legalization of euthanasia, during the upcoming legislature.

Reversing economic downturn

A still from an ETA video

ETA's armed struggle has claimed lives on Zapatero's watch

Zapatero is more concerned with the state of Spain's economy, which is expected to be hit harder than most other Western countries by the global economic problems, with growth plunging from 3.8 per cent in 2007 to possibly even less than 2 per cent this year.

The premier has pledged measures to soften the blow, such as an increase of public works to absorb workers from the long overheated, rapidly shrinking construction industry, which has accounted for nearly 20 per cent of Spain's gross domestic product (GDP).

Despite the general improvement in the political atmosphere, the Socialists' relations with other parties have evolved in such a way that Zapatero will be able to pass laws with the support of smaller parties only on a case-by-case basis.

Previously, he had been able to rely on the far-left Izquierda Unida (IU) and on the Catalan Republican Party ERC for the initial part of the legislature.

No major reshuffle

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos

Foreign Minister Moratinos is likely to remain in office

Zapatero was expected to make relatively few changes in the composition of his government, retaining his popular deputy Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, as well as Pedro Solbes as economics minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos as foreign minister and Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba as interior minister.

Zapatero, who appointed Spain's first half-female cabinet, was expected to give the defense portfolio to a woman, possibly to Elena Salgado, who held the health and then the public administration portfolio in the previous government.The premier was due to announce the composition of the new government after being sworn in by King Juan Carlos on Saturday.

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