Uneasy, Spain Sets Off on an Altered Course

Times Staff Writer

A sober Spain embarks today on an uncertain era of change with a new Socialist government determined to erase the conservatism of recent years and reverse a foreign policy exceedingly favorable to Washington.

Thirty-six days after one of Europe’s deadliest terrorist attacks shook Spain to its core, parliament Friday endorsed Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as the country’s prime minister. He was to be sworn in by King Juan Carlos I today.

Zapatero, as he is universally known, and his Socialist Workers Party won national elections March 14, three days after bombs ripped through four crowded commuter trains in Madrid, killing almost 200 people. The upset victory unseated the center-right Popular Party, which had ruled for eight years.


With the Socialists in charge, Spain becomes the first country to say it is prepared to abandon the U.S.-led occupation forces struggling to rein in violence inside Iraq. Spaniards overwhelmingly opposed the previous government’s support of the war, and Zapatero on Friday reiterated his determination to bring Spain’s 1,300 troops home June 30 unless the United Nations assumes military and political control of Iraq.

In marked contrast to outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Zapatero has branded the occupation of Iraq a “fiasco.”

“Day after day, we see the continuous deterioration of the situation in Iraq, further and further from the peace and stability that we all desire,” Zapatero told parliament. “My government will remove Spain from this illegal and unjust war.”

Zapatero, a former law professor and veteran legislator, is also a man of compromise and consensus who is loath to completely alienate the United States. His aides have attempted to smooth ruffled feathers by suggesting that Spain could send additional troops to Afghanistan instead.

“We want to have a good relationship with the United States,” Trinidad Jimenez, a senior Socialist official, said in an interview. “But we want a relationship of equals, not one of subordination. One where when it’s time to say no, we can say no.”

The Socialist government takes over as Spaniards are still recovering from the March 11 attacks, which are blamed on Islamic militants allied, at least philosophically, with the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Many voters appeared to blame Aznar and his enthusiastic support of the Bush administration for bringing Islamic wrath down on Spain.


In two days of debate in parliament leading up to Friday’s vote, Zapatero said he would wage “a relentless fight against terrorism, against any terrorism, against all terrorism.” He announced plans to place a united command structure over the country’s various and sometimes rival intelligence and security services; pour new funding into low-income housing; enhance women’s rights; and remove recent rules requiring Catholic instruction in schools.

Instead of looking obediently toward the White House, however, Zapatero is pointing his foreign policy toward Europe. He wants to improve ties with traditional allies France and Germany, friendships that were strained under Aznar.

The celebration of the new government Friday was low-key. Rather than thrilled by their new leaders, Spaniards seem gripped by uncertainty -- though many interviewed said they were relieved that the confrontational Aznar was out of the picture.

The trauma of the train attacks has not been easy to overcome. An audiotape released this week, purportedly a recording by Osama bin Laden, threatened more bloodshed in Europe. Spanish security forces remain on high alert, patrolling train stations, power plants and other potential targets. Security around the parliamentary proceedings to install Zapatero was tight.

Many Spanish voters, who turned out in record numbers to dump the Popular Party, were angered by what they saw as Aznar’s arrogant and disingenuous style. They accused the government of manipulating information after the bombings by continuing to blame Basque separatists after the evidence pointed elsewhere. It was just the latest in a string of perceived government prevarications.

“The people have felt deceived,” said Lola Quinonero, a 47-year-old hospital worker and one of several hundred people protesting outside the parliament as Zapatero was anointed. “We aren’t sure Zapatero will be better. We never expected him to win. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

The demonstration was staged to urge Zapatero to keep his word on Iraq. Failure to do so would cost him politically, analysts said.

In the tumult after the bombings, Zapatero’s calm, conciliatory approach appealed to voters, and he repeatedly emphasized it as a “return to democracy” in his presentation to the parliament Thursday and Friday.

“Zapatero’s principal virtue has been his lack of dogmatism and his invitation to permanent dialogue and his willingness to discuss and negotiate,” Luis Ignacio Parada wrote Friday in the conservative daily ABC. “That can also be his weakest point.”

For all the rhetoric about change, however, several of the measures that have attracted the most publicity, such as plans to legalize gay marriage and reforms that would permit a woman to inherit the throne, were in the works long before the Socialist victory.

Especially problematic for Zapatero -- and he has been vague in his plans on this score -- will be demands by politicians in the Catalan and Basque regions for greater autonomy.

The Socialists did not win a majority in the parliament, complicating Zapatero’s ability to govern. He will have to build alliances to press his ambitious legislative program. He won Friday’s vote in the parliament -- 183 to 148 with 19 abstentions -- thanks to smaller leftist and regional parties. But they have made clear that they will not stand by the Socialists on every issue.

“The government will be weak and unstable,” said Mariano Rajoy, head of the Popular Party that now becomes the main opposition force. “It will not be able to make its own decisions. It will have to depend on the will of others.”

Until now, Zapatero has distinguished himself basically by not distinguishing himself. He had not made much of a mark in his 18 years in the parliament. His nickname is Bambi, a reference to his mild-mannered, inoffensive persona.

Some Spaniards see that with relief after Aznar; others are worried that the new prime minister may not be tough enough as the country faces enormous challenges and threats.

“People believe him and believe in what he’s promising,” said Eduardo Nolla, a political analyst with the CEU-Universidad San Pablo. “The problem is they don’t know whether he’ll be strong enough to make the tough decisions and difficult choices. You can’t be Bambi and govern a country these days.”