Spanish Rivals Tackle Immigration

Spanish rivals tackle immigration

By Leslie Crawford in Madrid
Financial Times
Published: March 4 2008 02:00 | Last updated: March 4 2008 02:00

Spain's closely fought election campaign entered its final week with Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero, the Socialist prime minister, and Mariano Rajoy, his Popular party rival, squaring up yesterday for their second televised debate.

More than 13m Spaniards – 60 per cent of the viewing audience – watched the first round a week ago, in which neither candidate gained a significant advantage, according to snap polls after the debate.

Yesterday was the last day opinion polls could be published ahead of Sunday's election. The surveys conducted for Spain's national dailies gave the Socialist party a victory margin of between 2 and 4 per cent.

The findings indicate that the Socialists would remain the largest party in the Cortes, or lower house of parliament, albeit with fewer deputies than in 2004, when it won 164 seats and 42.6 per cent of the national vote.

No poll in this campaign has placed the Popular party in the lead.

In such a close contest, however, analysts said Mr Zapatero's Socialists looked vulnerable on the important issues of immigration and the economy. “Mr Zapatero has seen how other leftwing parties in Europe have lost elections over immigration, and he knows his government is equally vulnerable,” says one adviser to the prime minister, who asked not to be named.

The Popular party has used immigration to drive a “wedge” between the Socialist party and its traditional voters – blue-collar workers who have most to lose in an economic downturn.

Mr Rajoy has hardened his anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail. He told supporters in the Canary Islands – which struggle to accommodate thousands of African migrants who arrive in rickety fishing boats every year – that there was “no room for so many immigrants”.

The Popular party leader has attacked the Socialist government's amnesty for 700,000 undocumented migrants in 2005, which, according to Mr Rajoy, only encouraged illegal immigration further.

“After the US, Spain is the country that has received the most immigrants in the world,” Mr Rajoy said in a television interview. “In 2006, we took in more immigrants than France, Germany, Italy and the UK combined. We have to put some order here.”

Spain's 4.5m immigrants account for 10 per cent of the population, according to the 2007 municipal census. The foreign-born population increased by 2m between 2000 and 2004, when the Popular party was in power, and by 1.5m during the first three years of the Zapatero government.

Mr Rajoy tells Spaniards they will have to compete with immigrants for jobs, school places and hospital beds if the economy enters a period of low growth. He wants immigrants to sign an “integration contract” obliging them to return home if they lost their jobs in Spain. Mr Rajoy also wants to ban the use of Muslim headscarves in schools – except in Ceuta and Melilla, Spain's enclave cities in north Africa, where more than a third of the population are Muslims.

Mr Zapatero's aides say he will not fall into the “Popular party trap” of discussing immigration in negative terms. “The Popular party links immigration to crime, to lax border controls, and to competition for scarce public services,” said another adviser to the prime minister. “The public debate we need in Spain is about integration, and how to accommodate so many new people and new needs.”

In his campaign speeches, Mr Zapatero insists that immigration has been good for Spain because the country would have suffered labour shortages in industries including construction and because social security contributions of working immigrants are paying for the pensions of 1m Spaniards today.

At the Socialist party headquarters in Madrid, officials said they expected the economy and immigration would loom large in last night's debate. However, they also believed more subjective qualities would be decisive in determining the outcome of the debate – and the election on Sunday.

“It all boils down to credibility,” one Socialist official said. “Who is the most trustworthy candidate to lead Spain over the next four years.”