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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 February 2008, 02:15 GMT
Spanish PM faces voters' verdict
By Steve Kingstone
BBC News, Madrid

Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero
Economic woes have hurt the Spanish prime minister

If the US election is a marathon, Spain's is a sprint.

The official starting-gun for campaigning will be fired on Friday, barely two weeks before voters go to the polls on 9 March.

In between, Spaniards will be treated to two televised debates, along with 30-second chunks of television advertising - barely enough time for a Spanish politician to say "vote for me".

But as Spaniards are acutely aware, the outcome of even the shortest sprint can be transformed in the final yards.

Last time, as 11 March 2004 dawned, the governing Popular Party (PP) had the winning line in sight. But within hours, 191 lives had been claimed by an Islamist terror attack.

Three days later the PP was voted out of office, after wrongly blaming the Madrid train bombings on the Basque separatist group, Eta.

In some ways, the 2008 general election campaign is a straight replay.

The party leaders are the same as in 2004, the threat from Basque and Islamist militants continues, and the PP has loudly and indignantly prolonged the debate over its response to 11 March.

Eta controversy

In January, a police swoop on an alleged Islamist terror cell in Barcelona refocused attention on homeland security.

Video frame grab from Eta
Eta has resumed its armed struggle for independence

In the same month, the governing Socialist Party (PSOE) admitted to having maintained secret contact with Eta, even after the gunmen broke a ceasefire in December 2006.

Terror will always be an election issue in Spain, and a fatal attack would once again transform the campaign.

But increasingly, the 2008 campaign seems destined to be decided somewhere more obvious - in voters' pockets.

After a remarkable 14 consecutive years of growth, the Spanish economy is showing signs of fatigue.

Having long outpaced France, Germany and Britain, Spain's GDP growth will fall below the EU average by the end of 2009, according to the European Commission.

At 4.4%, inflation is at a 10-year high, while January's unemployment figures were the highest for eight years.

With a decade-long housing boom also spluttering to a halt, the opposition is suddenly keener to talk economics, rather than Eta.

Missed opportunity

For Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, it is a case of bad timing.

PP leader Mariano Rajoy
PP leader Mariano Rajoy has made immigration a big issue

Over his four-year term, he can point to impressive average annual growth of 3.6%, and claim to have created three million new jobs.

Today, Spaniards are wealthier than their Italian counterparts.

As recently as September, the prime minister boasted that in the Champions League of global economies, Spain had "won the most games".

In retrospect, the manager should probably have called an election back in the autumn, while his team was still winning.

Mr Zapatero's supporters stress the transformational nature of his premiership, under the slogan: "reasons to believe".

Marketed simply as "Z", he is billed as an enlightened leader for the 21st Century - a man who pushed through gay marriage, fast-track divorce and greater workplace rights for women, together with a law explicitly condemning the repression of the Franco years.

Church steps in

Such in-your-face liberalism has provoked criticism from Spain's still-influential Catholic Church.

In January, the Spanish Bishops' Conference released a statement arguing that "not all (electoral) programmes are equally compatible with faith and the demands of Christian life".

In a thinly veiled attack on the government's contacts with Eta, the statement also stressed that a "terrorist" organisation could not be considered a "political interlocutor".

Responding, Mr Zapatero made great play of complaining to the papal nuncio in Madrid.

But privately, PSOE activists relished the confrontation as an opportunity to portray the campaign as a battle between the forces of progress and reaction.

Linking Spain's bishops to the opposition, Mr Zapatero told one newspaper: "the most right-wing elements in the Church... already call the shots in the PP, and they want to call the shots in Spain".

On the right, the PP's campaign appears designed to energise its conservative base.

Party leader Mariano Rajoy has come out against adoption by gay couples, and proposed that immigrants sign a contract with the Spanish state, promising to integrate with local customs and to go home if they do not find a job.

The PP website excitedly informs us that Mr Rajoy listens to The Police, and enjoys watching the DVD of Back to the Future, a title which aptly sums up the party's election mindset.

Many senior PP figures feel that they were cheated of certain victory in 2004, and that Mr Zapatero's win - courtesy of a destabilising terror attack - upset the natural order of Spanish politics.

Close race

Spain's notoriously hit-and-miss opinion polls still put PSOE marginally ahead, but the lead has narrowed and smaller leftist and regional parties may well hold the balance of power in parliament.

Much will depend on turnout: in 2004, an unusually high level of participation after the train bombings helped propel the PSOE to its surprise win.

But historically, the PP has been more effective at getting its core supporters to the polls.

Against the backdrop of a faltering economy, the key question is: will Spaniards who indignantly turned to Mr Zapatero four years ago feel similarly motivated to back him today?

Timeline: Eta campaign
19 Dec 07 |  Europe
Country profile: Spain
04 Dec 07 |  Country profiles

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