Sunday, September 19, 2004

DAVID SHARROCK, Madrid correspondent for London's The Times, writes about Zapatero, "the accidental premier". Since the article is not available outside the UK, I will copy it here in full, it's worth the read:
IT SEEMED like a good idea at the time, but suddenly José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s hasty promise to “save your shipyard jobs” made to an audience of Basque Socialists and trade unionists has landed the Spanish Prime Minister in his first crisis in office.

Throughout this week television news has brought pictures of burning cars and riot police firing rubber bullets at masked demonstrators armed with catapults.

The violence and industrial unrest has been fuelled by bitter talk of “treachery” after the Socialist Prime Minister went back on his word within days by saying that he supported a privatisation plan for the troubled state-owned Izar shipbuilding group.

It will inevitably involve closures and thousands of redundancies, given recent losses of more than €1 billion (£700 million).

Such images do not square with the buen talante — the “good mood” — that has been Señor Zapatero’s trademark in the six months since he won a surprise general election victory, three days after Islamist terrorists blew up 191 commuters in Madrid’s morning rush hour.

His style runs entirely counter to the confrontational and, at times, plain bad-tempered persona favoured by his predecessor, José María Aznar.

Not for nothing has Señor Zapatero’s nickname of “Bambi”, with its insinuation of bright-eyed naivety, been replaced with a new one: the Quiet Man.

But with more confrontations in Seville yesterday and the promise of further strike action next week when the 10,800 Izar workers threaten to down tools across the country, it could be that the honeymoon which “ZP” — or “zeta pé” as the Prime Minister’s public relations gurus have crowned him — has enjoyed until now is officially over.

Even the harsh Iberian autumn seems to be a commentary on the progress of the 43-year-old Prime Minister who never stops smiling.

By contrast with the previous Spanish leader, Señor Zapatero — who hails from the barren plains of Castille — has been welcoming the regional chiefs of Europe’s most politically devolved nation to the Moncloa Palace to discuss further dilution of Madrid’s power.

Reliant upon the support of small but strident Catalan nationalist groups, he is bestowing favours upon this corner of the map while preparing for a battle next year with the Basques, who want a deal barely short of independence.

Meanwhile, the barons of his own party, notably Juan Carlos Rodríguez Ibarra, the Extremaduran leader, mutter ever more loudly about the eventual break-up of the nation.

According to senior figures in the PSOE, the Prime Minister’s Socialist party, only Señor Zapatero believed that he could win in March.

How much the terrorist attack influenced the result, which gave the Socialists a victory without a majority in Parliament, will remain an unanswered question. But Señor Aznar continues to believe that his People’s Party (PP), under its new leader, Mariano Rajoy, would have won a third term but for al-Qaeda’s intervention.

But what cannot be denied is that the new Prime Minister’s swift decision to withdraw the 1,300-strong contingent of Spanish troops from Iraq, in fulfilment of his campaign pledge, only hours after taking office was well received and propelled his party to victory in the May elections for the European Parliament, confirming a seven-point lead — albeit on a low turnout — over the conservatives. The gap between Government and Opposition remains steady at that figure in the polls.

Since then, Señor Zapatero’s image has been damaged by a succession of gaffes and mishaps that have been seized with glee by the Opposition.

The first embarrassment came when José Bono, the Defence Minister who famously called Tony Blair a “complete dickhead”, awarded a medal to himself for his withdrawal of the Spanish troops from Iraq. Señor Zapatero defended the gesture, which many considered self-indulgent, but Señor Bono cancelled the award.

The lack of preparedness for high office of some of his Cabinet has often been apparent. An ill-advised attempt to appeal to women voters with a glossy spread for Vogue magazine featuring women ministers, who account for half the Cabinet, only undermined his feminist credentials.

But perhaps the most damaging came this month, when, during a visit to Tunisia, Señor Zapatero urged other Western countries to follow Spain’s example and withdraw troops from Iraq.

Even El País, the normally pro-Zapatero newspaper, castigated him in an editorial in which it raised doubts over the direction of Spanish foreign policy. It was wildly at odds with the Prime Minister’s stated aim of restoring good relations with Washington and London and coincided with a demand from the kidnappers of two Italian aid workers in Baghdad that Italy withdraw its troops.

Days later Señor Zapatero achieved his long-stated ambition of “taking Spain out of the Azores picture” — a reference to photographs of Señor Aznar, Mr Blair and President Bush together on the eve of the Iraq war — with another photo-opportunity.

Repeatedly clasping hands with President Chirac of France and Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, in Madrid last week, Señor Zapatero quipped that “Old Europe is as good as new”.

But behind the photo-opportunity there appeared to be little of substance beyond some modest agreement on cross-border anti-terrorist co-operation. On the major issue of European funding, the Spanish leader found himself in isolation after his efforts to defend the huge subsidy Spain receives from Brussels — Europe’s largest — fell on deaf ears, making a substantial cut inevitable after 2007.

Symbolically Señor Zapatero may have returned Spain to “the heart of Europe” as he put it, but the occasion left commentators crying “Where’s the beef?” and wondering if a return to the Paris-Berlin axis would do anything to affect Madrid’s international relevance.

Señor Zapatero’s attempt to be all things to all people has left economists wringing their hands in despair as Cabinet ministers promise higher pensions, more government-sponsored housing for low-income families and increased industrial wages. A fraught round of bargaining is now in prospect before the budget, due in November, as Spain’s regional governments demand greater fiscal freedom.

“They felt safe playing Father Christmas while on the campaign trail,” Miguel Corral, a political commentator, said. “They were unprepared to take office and after their surprise victory felt obliged to be true to their word, to keep the voters happy, even though long term it will dent the Spanish economy.”

Last month Señor Zapatero explained to El País that he was a happy leader “because I have demystified power . . . Every night I say to my wife, ‘Sonsoles, you can’t imagine the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who are capable of running a government!’ ”

But as the political honeymoon is consigned to the photo album and the happy days of never having to say no come to an end, the Quiet Man of Castille may soon have to learn some new lines.