Mr Bean Pips Biggles by a Whisker


With almost all the votes counted, it is clear that the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) has won a significant victory in the Spanish general elections held on Sunday.

Having surprised everyone by winning in 2004, Socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero can now claim a new legitimacy after his party managed to increase its parliamentary representation – despite an ailing economy, rising inflation figures and unemployment at record highs.

In his victory speech Zapatero said that he would, "govern for all, but consider most the needs of those who don’t have it all."

According to the Ministry of the Interior‘s electoral website, PSOE, with almost 44 per cent of the votes and 169 seats, will again be the biggest single party in the Spanish Cortes – or Lower House. These figures represent a modest increase in PSOE’s share of the vote and five more seats than it had after the 2004 elections. But they do not give Zapatero the 176 seats he needs to form a majority government in his own right.

The main opposition party, Partido Popular (PP), also enjoyed a modest increase of about 2.4 per cent in its vote – gaining five extra seats (up from 148 in 2004, to 153) and probably allowing its leader Mariano Rajoy the opportunity to hold on to his job if he wants it, despite now being a two-time loser.

Senator Pío García-Escudero, the parliamentary spokesperson and campaign organiser for PP, tried his best to find a positive side to the night, going so far as to call it "a magnificent and historic result" for his party – despite the loss – because of its increased share of the vote and number of seats.

The reality, however, is that the re-election of Zapatero during such an economically difficult moment, is as much a rejection of PP’s tactics over the past four years as it is a vote of confidence in the Socialists – maybe more so.

These two parties now dominate the Spanish parliament to an unprecedented degree with the smaller, regionalist parties scrambling for survival – even though a number of them will enjoy an occasional whiff of power by dint of Zapatero being forced to depend on their votes to pass controversial legislation.

Over 25 million electors went to the polls on Sunday, the 10th election since the Fascist dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco finally died in 1975. Having endured Franco’s rule for almost 40 years, most Spaniards are obsessive about their four-year democratic ritual – this year’s voter turnout of 75.3 per cent, although slightly lower than expected, is still healthy in a country with non-compulsory voting.

Received wisdom in Spain has it that a low voter turnout favours Rajoy’s party – the last time PP tasted majority government was after the 2000 elections when voter participation was under 69 per cent. The PP’s political base is usually characterised as solid and conservative; while the Socialists are often portrayed as romantic and flighty – more likely to be frustrated by their party’s shortcomings and therefore to abstain.

But even though election day itself was peaceful, this year’s campaign was yet again bloodied by a terrorist attack – something that Spaniards have had to get used to since the first post-Franco ballot in 1977, with over 200 pre-election political assassinations committed between then and now.

In fact, the last Spanish general elections, in March 2004, were held in the shadow of the horrific al-Qaeda-inspired bombing of morning commuter trains in Madrid, which killed 191 people and left another 1755 injured. This year, on Friday, in the Basque city of Mondragón, Isaías Carrasco, a former Socialist councillor, was assassinated by gunmen presumed to be operatives of the Basque separatist group ETA.

The murder of Carrasco seemed to galvanise the electorate – with everyone, from the murdered man’s daughter to Zapatero himself and a raft of newspaper editorials calling on voters to cast their ballots as a symbolic rejection of ETA’s politics.

For four years, Rajoy and the PP have been peddling an amalgam of innuendo and wild conspiracy theories, implying that there was something fishy about the 2004 bombings; that PSOE’s attempts at dialogue with ETA proved that Zapatero was soft on terrorism; and that the Socialists’ cynical need for support from Catalan nationalists in the Cortes was threatening to split a country already riven by ethnic and regional tensions.

Some of the PP’s dirty tricks backfired in spectacular fashion – reminiscent of the incandescent stupidity of the Liberal Party campaigners in Penrith, who in the dying days of the last Australian election campaign tried to imply that the ALP supported Muslim separatism.

Rajoy (who in a certain light, bears a spooky resemblance to former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans) also played the race card in a way reminiscent of the glory days of John Howard, Philip Ruddock and Peter Reith – saying that there were now enough immigrants in Spain, that they were the source of delinquency and crime, and that the country was "full".

Desperate? Cynical? Par for the course.

It’s a level of snake-oil rhetoric that marks some of the profounder similarities between the Spanish and Australian right.

For the past four years, to his credit, Zapatero (who manages to look like Mr Bean on a good day) has been fighting not only a weakening economy and the usual list of bloopers, corruption scandals and mediocrities thrown up by his party; he’s also been fighting, calmly and in a considered way, a political spin machine that makes Howard, Reith, Ruddock, Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin look like the Vienna Boys Choir on a picnic.

Then there’s the concerted and explosive campaign against him orchestrated by Spain’s ultra-conservative Catholic bishops, who portray Zapatero’s Government as godless and morally lax because of its commitment to equal status for women, same-sex marriage and legal abortion.

That Zapatero did not gain a clear parliamentary majority yesterday may be interpreted as proof that he lacks popular support. But, given the forces lined up against him, that he won at all is impressive enough, and perhaps indicative that a majority of Spaniards are willing to put aside the politics of fear, dog-whistles and xenophobia and listen instead to moderate and inclusive reason.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.