Spain’s government sees support slide away

For the first time since the Madrid train bombings, support for Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and the PSOE party has fallen below that of the opposition. After what has probably been the Socialist government’s most complex fortnight since it came to power 18 months ago, the results of a survey published today by El Mundo suggest that if elections were held in Spain now, the Popular Party would be voted in.

Supporters of Spain’s socialist government argue that Rodriguez Zapatero has had a difficult introduction to government by any standards. Natural crises like the severe drought in Spain and severe forest fires this Summer have presented a challenge to the Environment Ministry.

Problems with immigration, which have been threatening to come to a head for the past 5 years, have finally peaked, constitutional reform has become an issue for the first time in the short history of Spain’s democracy, European funds which financed much of Spain’s development and infrastructure during the 80s and 90s have finally dried up with the entry of needier states into the EU, and the government has had to come to terms with an opposition party which, having never come to terms with or forgiven the Socialists for the result of the 2004 elections, refuses to cooperate with government, even in key issues such as terrorism.

The Socialist government has achieved some important goals during its time in power. The amnesty granted to illegal immigrants last year was a bold attempt to reveal the extent of a growing undercover workforce vital to several sectors, notably agriculture, construction and domestic labor, but mistreated by employers. As a result of the amnesty hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many of whom had been living and working in Spain for years and had children attending Spanish schools, received a contract and are now paying taxes and their employers are paying their national insurance payments.

Housing policies and the new state rental agency mean that many more young people and low-income families will have access to more housing options than before, and increased investment in science and tecnology promises to address at last the fact that Spain invests less in research and new technologies than most of its European partners. Even the Spanish congress has woken up to high-tech.
Relations between the Basque government and national government are at last cordial, after years of back-biting and non-cooperation. Indeed the whole style of government in Spain has changed with policies now being debated rather than dictated to Congress. The Spanish Health Minister seems to be making progress in fighting smoking in Spain, child obesity and high alcohol and drug consumption, and gay marriages in Spain are now a reality. Progress has also been made in dealing with domestic violence in Spain.

However, despite the good things, the Socialist government has failed to provide convincing arguments or policies on several very important issues, and Zapatero will need to make some changes in government if he is to regain the support he needs to follow his first term in power with a second electoral victory.

The government is not handling the issue of Catalan autonomy with the intelligence a subject as sensitive in Spain as constitutional reform requires. It is intriguing – to a non-Spaniard – how the only party with members who opposed a wide-ranging democratic constitution at the beginning of Spanish democracy (PP) now portrays itself as the only true defensor of democratic Spain and its Constitution. And how the party whose members returned from exile to push forward the transition from dictatorship to democracy is now being accused of putting the whole constitution at risk by accommodating Catalan separatist demands. In failing to find the right balance between meeting demands of Catalan separatists in Congress while also addressing the concerns of millions of non-Catalan Spaniards, Rodriguez Zapatero has put his government in a very vulnerable position.
The second big problem Zapatero faces at the moment is how to deal with the entry of Africans desperate to enter Spain and Europe and prepared to risk their lives by climbing over the boder fences dividing Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco. Despite the need to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into Europe, most people in Spain have been moved by the images published in the media and testimonies shown on television of these poor, hopeless Sub-saharians. The solutions implemented by the government have failed to convince many. No-one can feel comfortable seeing buses of crying men, handcuffed to eachother, being ferried out of the border area to no-mans land somewhere on the border of Morocco, where they are reportedly forced to get off the bus and are abandoned with no food or water. With the help of Morocco and Spain’s EU partners, the government must find a more humane and long-term solution to a problem which is not going to disappear.
The Spanish President also needs to speed up the government’s long-promised educational reform (in a recent survey the great majority of Spaniards didn’t know what the Education Minister was called or even what she looked like), improve foreign policy (the day after the German elections last month, Rodriguez Zapatero was the only European leader to congratulate Schroeder on his “victory” and express his satisfaction at the “defeat” of the CDU candidate who, according to German media this morning, is infact going to be Germany’s next president….), provide convincing alternatives to the problem of water distribution in Spain and to improve his image within Spain and abroad if he does not want to be voted out in the next election.
Time will tell……

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