Spanish PM To Defy Immigration Backlash

Spanish PM to defy immigration backlash

The Australian
Correspondents in Madrid
March 08, 2008

THE Spanish Prime Minister is set to clinch re-election tomorrow by a narrow margin, according to the results of a poll commissioned by Britain's The Times newspaper.

The survey, conducted by the Spanish polling company Sigma Dos, shows Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist Party beating its conservative rivals by 3.8percentage points. That result would give the Socialists enough seats in parliament to form a government, but place them short of an absolute majority.

Spanish media are barred from publishing opinion polls in the five days leading up to the election, but political parties and business groups continue to commission them.

The Times poll was conducted on Wednesday, after the second of two ill-tempered television debates between the Prime Minister and Mariano Rajoy, of the right-wing Popular Party. In four hours of heated debate, they clashed over the economy, immigration and anti-terrorism policy.

For the past four years, Mr Rajoy has excoriated the Spanish leader for his ill-fated efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the violent Basque separatist group ETA, accusing him of “surrendering to terrorists”.

The theme has played well with the Popular Party's supporters but failed to win over enough converts to win the election.

So Mr Rajoy has changed tack, focusing on Spain's stalling growth, rising prices and, above all, immigration.

The Times poll suggests at least one of Mr Rajoy's key proposals – to force immigrants to sign a contract undertaking to abide by Spanish laws and customs – has connected with voters, with 62per cent of respondents saying they would support such a proposal while 26.4per cent rejected it.

The Spanish Government has criticised Mr Rajoy's plan as xenophobic and redundant. Immigrants must already abide by Spanish law, they point out, and even those born in the country would have a hard time agreeing what “Spanish customs” are. In private though, officials from the Socialist Party are worried that the high rate of immigration in the past few years could cost it votes tomorrow.

Spain's once-dwindling population has jumped from 40 million to 45 million since 2000, boosting the economy but creating tensions in working-class urban areas, where many immigrants have settled.

The economy is another source of worry for strategists. Unemployment figures showed 53,000 Spaniards lost their jobs in February alone, taking the unemployment rate to 8.6per cent. The manufacturing sector is also at its weakest in more than six years.

Spain's economic woes are a warning to the rest of Europe about problems that have been easy to ignore in four years of heated rhetoric about Islamic terrorism and the imperfections of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

The easy credit and the house-price boom that have driven 14 years of economic growth, making Spain the envy of Europe, have now ended. Voters say they are afraid the housing market will collapse.

Mr Zapatero came to power unexpectedly four years ago on a wave of public anger over the previous Government's handling of the Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people and injured more than 1800.

The conservative Government of Jose Maria Aznar tried to pin the outrage on ETA despite mounting evidence that it was the work of Islamic radicals. Analysts say it was punished by voters who would not normally have gone to the polls.

This time the challenge for the Socialists has been to motivate those voters to support it again at the polls.

– The Times