Spanish voters on March 9 narrowly re-elected Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to another four-year term in office. But he defeated his rival, Mariano Rajoy, the head of the center-right Popular Party, by only a narrow margin and fell far short of gaining an absolute majority in the lower house of parliament.
As a result, Zapatero will need to establish a coalition with one or more of Spain’s smaller nationalist and leftist parties in order to form a government. This implies that Zapatero will again be hostage to the whims of radical minorities, which will hamper his ability govern. This will almost certainly further exacerbate the deep divisions in Spanish society that surfaced during his first term, which began in 2004.
With nearly all of the ballots counted, Zapatero’s party won 43.6 percent of the vote, and the PP 40.1 percent, according to the Interior Ministry. Turnout was high, an estimated 75.3 percent of the country’s 35 million eligible voters, just below the 75.7 percent turnout in 2004, when the Madrid train bombings by Islamic militants drove people, especially first-time voters, to the polls in record numbers.
The Socialists won 169 seats in the 350-seat lower house, five more than in 2004 but seven short of the absolute majority that would have eased their ability to govern. With 154 seats, six more than last time, the PP remains a major force.
Nevertheless, Zapatero has already interpreted his victory as a mandate to pursue his “secular vision” for eradicating social, cultural and religious conservatism in Spain. “The Spanish people have spoken clearly,” Zapatero said in a victory speech. “They have agreed that it is time to open a new era.”
During his first term, Zapatero managed to split Spanish society down the middle by attempting overnight to transform a traditionally conservative country into the most socially liberal one in Europe. He pushed to legalize gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples, simplify divorce, reduce the role of religion in schools, legitimize Basque terrorists by negotiating with them, and grant more political power to Spain’s rebellious autonomous regions.
Throughout the past four years, Rajoy and his party relentlessly have tried to block Zapatero’s agenda, with some success. But Spain’s economic problems are spinning out of control, while sky-rocketing immigration is transforming, permanently, the demographic make-up of the country. At the same time, there is a growing perception that Basque and Islamist terrorists, not the central government, set the agenda in Spain. And now the Basque regional government says it plans to stage a referendum on Basque independence in October 2008, which some analysts warn is the first step on a road that will lead to the breakup of Spain.
So the big question is: Why would Spanish voters re-elect a leader who seems intent on destroying the very fabric of Spanish society, and perhaps even Spain itself?
Any number of cultural and historical factors that are unique to Spain might be able to provide some answers to this query. But in the Age of Zapatero, the shift to a post-modern political logic stands out, more than anything else, as the primary influencer of contemporary Spanish politics.
Post-modernism means many things to many people, but almost everyone agrees that at base it is all about relativism… cultural, religious, moral, political and otherwise. And Zapatero (like Barack Obama in the United States) has mastered the art of post-modern political discourse: When he talks, he issues forth myriad beautiful-sounding words that enrapture many of his listeners. But in the final analysis, he says nothing of any import because his rhetoric can be (and is) interpreted to mean anything to anyone, or perhaps more accurately, everything to everyone.
Zapatero has a political message that is as simple as it is coherent: He seeks to remove every single last vestige of conservatism from every single aspect of Spanish society, culture and politics… even history. Zapatero has been able to mobilize the Spanish masses behind his social re-engineering projects by employing (masterfully) a political discourse that uses (or manipulates) facts and non-facts (or what may or may not be facts but merely impressions) to convince the majority of them of his worldview. And those who do not buy into the “fuzzy logic” of his virtual reality are denounced by the post-modern Socialist thought police as “intolerant”, and/or a “danger” to Spanish democracy.
In this context, Spanish Conservatives have been unable or unwilling to articulate an alternative “vision” to the de-Christianized Spain that is being pushed by the Spanish Left. Indeed, Spanish Conservatives are often silenced into inaction by the leftwing canard that the PP seeks to take away the “rights” of the Spanish people in order to return Spain to the authoritarianism of the Franco dictatorship (1936-1975). Spanish Socialists habitually claim that only they can guarantee the future of Spanish democracy, and a great many Spaniards seem to agree.
In pursuit of moderation, the PP has for many years exercised political self-censorship by portraying itself simply as more a competent “manager” than the Socialist Party on questions of economics, immigration and social policy. But arcane public policy debates rarely inspire the masses, especially in the face of Zapatero’s post-modern political rhetoric. The fact is that Spanish Conservatives lost the election because they failed to capture the imagination of ordinary voters. And they will continue to lose elections until they present voters with a grand vision for Spain’s future.
The Spanish election offers some important lessons for European Conservatives more broadly. For example, they would benefit from articulating a new “vision” for the future of Europe, one that is solidly based on liberal democracy and free markets, on the primacy of the nation state, on traditional Judeo-Christian values, and on the common-sense logic of modernism. European Conservatives (like their counterparts in the United States) could also be doing a better job at politics, that is to say, by making a greater effort to educate voters about alternatives to the post-modern cultural, social and political morass of the European Left.
As the Spanish Conservatives have learned the hard way, in the era of post-modern politics, it is better to be “for” something rather than “against” something.
Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group