Fumbling for government

Spain's prime minister may look like Mr Bean - is he also behaving like him?

Robert Latona

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Topics Politics

When Spaniards chose the Socialist Party’s José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as their prime minister, many were less intently focused on the government they were getting than on the one they were getting rid of. It would be an oversimplification to claim they voted solely out of fear. But there is a fair amount of truth in the notion that when Zapatero addresses the Spanish parliament over the next four years, the 191 corpses who helped to give him his majority will be staring back from the Socialist Party benches.

Zapatero himself has just told Time magazine that he ‘respects the view’ of those who will never let him forget the electoral upset that scuppered a third term for the right-of-centre Popular Party, just three days after the terrorist attacks in Madrid. The former law professor is a great respecter of contrary views, as his people will not pass up a chance to remind you.

Certainly you won’t find many European heads of government confessing to being leadership averse. ‘I don’t want to be a great leader; I want to be a good democrat’, Zapatero told Time. ‘I accept that when an overwhelming majority of citizens says something, they are right’, he added, raising some eyebrows locally when his Jimmy Stewart-like declaration of personal reticence and unbounded faith in the demos was picked up by the Spanish press.

But it’s no secret that he lets the Socialist Party mostly run itself, having neither taste nor gift for political wrangling. His sudden elevation to the top of the ballot was a compromise hammered out among the vested interests, last-stand ideologues and the ’barons’ who pull the levers of the patronage dispensing machinery that drives Spain’s powerful regional governments. Zapatero dances long and hard to the tune called by the party’s maverick offshoot in Catalonia which, in turn, depends on the support of a fringe party of unscrupulous radical nationalists.

Leadership, Spaniards may be thinking, is what we had stuffed down our throats under Franco, so maybe a little less in that line is not such a bad thing. Zapatero tried to makes up for the shortfall by talking up his talante, a word that encompasses open-mindedness, fairness and tolerance; the sort of thing UK prime minister Tony Blair can project effortlessly but which represents a novel departure on the Spanish political scene. Talante became Zapatero’s campaign mantra to heighten the contrast with the outgoing prime minister José Maria Aznar, whose public image and oratorical style have been compared to a frozen fish filet.

That Aznar had opted not to seek a third term was no reason to stop Zapatero from running against him, rather than his opponent of record, Mariano Rajoy; never letting it be forgotten that Aznar aligned with Bush and Blair over Iraq. The Iraq war has always been as unpopular in Spain as in Britain. While there may have been a latent fear that the butchery in Madrid was the Islamists’ revenge for the cuddle at the Azores summit, it would be closer to the truth to argue that the attacks transformed into something electorally palpable what until then had been a diffuse miasma of resentment.

Trashing Aznar has served Zapatero so well that since taking over the duties of government he appears loath to move on and tackle other things – such as governing, some might say. On the day he took office he gave the order for Spanish-led troops to pull out of Iraq, but intelligence sources are warning that the Madrid atrocities were perceived as a stupendous victory by the bin Laden boys and a sequel is only a matter of time. Economic growth forecasts sagging? Well, they would, wouldn’t they, because of oil prices, because of Iraq, because of Aznar. Economic guru Pedro Solbes was called back from Brussels by way of reassuring the business/banking community that no statist hanky-panky is going queer their game. But Solbes is too much of a pro to spin the numbers and thus mostly keeps his own counsel these days.

So does foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, the former European Union (EU) ambassador to the Middle East, when Zapatero goes out of his way – as he did recently in Tunisia – to sneer at Bush about the situation in Iraq in an unscripted fit of gratuitous schadenfreude. Elsewhere on the diplomatic front, Cuban president Fidel Castro remains a fixed point of reverence for the Spanish left, and Zapatero lost no time getting cosy with Cuba, sailing against the prevailing EU winds.

Then came the uproar caused by Zapatero’s eight female ministers – gender parity being high on his list of sovereign remedies for what ails Spain – when they appeared in a double-page spread in Vogue decked out in outfits by Armani, Valentino and Spain’s own poshest designers, posing on the front steps of the Moncloa Presidential Palace. The Herb Ritts-knockoff photo was for a vacuous ‘you’ve come a long way, baby’ feature, but the protagonists were genuinely surprised when women’s groups shouted the whole thing down as demeaning and retrograde. Animal activists, as you might guess, had plenty to say about the draped furs that were used as props.

Along with women’s quotas, Zapatero is convinced the rest of Spain shares his obsession with seeing that homosexuals get a fair deal and is preparing legislation that will allow them to marry, claim full spousal rights and adopt children. Reality TV has been added to the government’s fixations, with the prime minister himself giving notice that unless the networks clean up their act, he seriously contemplates ‘having the government do something’ about televised garbage. Well, if you can’t lead a country, you can always censor away its bad habits.

Thanks to talante, Zapatero’s popularity has stayed reasonably intact as he clambers up the greased learning curve. Alfonso Guerra, the Socialists’ veteran enforcer, probably regrets having sneeringly dismissed him as ‘Bambi’ on account of those big, soulful eyes. Outside the party, pundits have taken to referring to Zapatero as R2D2, after the sawed-off Star Wars robot, because he’s cute and nobody can understand what he’s saying. And now that Spaniards have got used to seeing him on telly it is considered tiresome to draw attention to the prime minister’s uncanny physical resemblance to a certain Rowan Atkinson character.

What, then, is a country to make of a leader who vaunts his lack of leadership skills and has Clare Short’s brain trapped inside Mr Bean’s body? That’s one the Spaniards are going to have to decide for themselves.

Robert Latona is a US journalist living and working in Madrid.

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Topics Politics

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