This could be the beginning of the end for Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. The local branch of his Socialist party was beaten by the conservative and nationalistic Catalan party Convergència i Unió (CiU) in regional elections in Catalonia late last month, dealing a major blow to Zapatero’s government as he attempts to tackle the country’s floundering economy and sky-high levels of unemployment. The CiU won 38 per cent of the vote, clobbering the Socialists who took just 18 per cent, although the CiU failed to get a majority in the regional government.
Zapatero’s popularity has tanked following savage cutbacks over the past year. “Civil servants, and there are a lot of them—two million and a half—he reduced their salaries by seven to 10 per cent,” says José Ramón Montero, political science professor at the Universidad Autonóma de Madrid. “Unemployment rose to 20 per cent—that’s four million people completely unemployed—and then he reformed the labour market, which caused a general strike in late September.” It’s a far cry from when Zapatero was first elected in 2004, when he capitalized on an electorate angry over the way the previous conservative government had handled terrorist bombings on March 11, 2004. Now, the mild-mannered prime minister is facing growing criticism for what many see as a tepid response to Spain’s economic meltdown.
Bonnie Field, assistant professor of global studies at Bentley University in Massachusetts, says that according to polling conducted by the Center for Sociological Research in October, 81 per cent of Spaniards think that Zapatero inspired little or no confidence. The same poll found that Zapatero’s political performance received an average rating of 3.46 on a scale of zero to 10, with zero being the worst rating.
However, Field says Zapatero still has something to gain. In her research prior to the Catalonian election, Field talked with many of Zapatero’s potential allies in the national and regional parties in the Spanish parliament who believed that the best result for the prime minister’s much-maligned minority national government would be a minority CiU victory in Catalonia. That would require Artur Mas, the CiU’s leader, to cut deals across party lines—and be less disruptive than anticipated. “The CiU could act as a more consistent partner for Zapatero’s national minority government,” explains Field. She adds, “if Zapatero can assure the stability of his government, it gives him 16 months to attempt to improve his party’s electoral prospects.”
And he has some time. Today, Zapatero’s opposition on the federal stage remains fractured and has yet to compose a coherent platform. “The differential problem here is that so far, the opposition party has not said one word, literally one word, about its plans for the future,” says Montero. “I am not exaggerating—no one really knows.”
Even so, barring an economic miracle, analysts agree there’s no denying Zapatero is fighting an uphill battle. “Unless something dramatic happens,” says Robert Davidson, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Toronto, “many believe that Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the opposition Partido Popular, will stroll to victory in 2012.”