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Mr. Zapatero Goes to Washington

Spain's left-wing prime minister flees his wrecked country for a photo-op with Obama.

12:00 AM, Oct 9, 2009 • By SOEREN KERN
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Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's second term in office has not been a happy affair for Spain. Soundly re-elected on a post-modern platform of Socialism, pacifism and feminism just 18 months ago, Zapatero has since stumbled badly in the face of an economic crisis that shows no signs of abating. With his poll numbers now at an all-time low, Zapatero is hoping that his October 13 visit to the White House will reverse his foundering political fortunes.

Spain is reeling from the collapse of a housing bubble that for 15 years enabled the notoriously uncompetitive economy to post some of the highest growth rates in the European Union. The construction boom lulled Spaniards into a false sense of never-ending prosperity. They are now waking up to the reality. Spanish GDP is expected to shrink by more than 4 percent this year. Spain also has Europe's worst jobless rate, at 18 percent and climbing. Meanwhile, the budget deficit is spiralling out of control.

Indeed, Zapatero's current woes stem largely from his inability to inspire confidence as an economic manager. As the economy began to deteriorate in 2007, for example, Zapatero doggedly refused to utter the word "crisis" because "pessimism does not create jobs." He was finally badgered into using the word one year later in a late-night television interview, after a journalist read him the word's dictionary definition.

Under fire from members of the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP), who accused the prime minister of inaction and of refusing to face reality, the Zapatero government replaced its strategy of denial with Plan B, which consisted of blaming Spain's economic problems on "the neo-cons" and on "radical liberalism." Later, Plan C included a global advertising campaign in the world financial press designed to highlight Zapatero's economic management skills. Plan D saw the naming of a new economics minister who has no experience in economics.

Plan E involved an €8 billion public-works stimulus (this on top of €22 billion--a whopping 2.1 percent of Spain's GDP--worth of campaign promises). Moreover, next year's budget promises billions more for regional governments and the long-term unemployed. Profligate spending, coupled with a dramatic fall in government revenues, has created a ballooning budget deficit, which is expected to reach 10 percent of GDP this year.

Anxious to balance the books, the Zapatero government in September unveiled Plan F, which calls for (surprise, surprise) raising taxes. "I am going to ask for a share of people's incomes out of solidarity and to meet the demands of the most needy," Zapatero announced. Economists on both sides of the political aisle say tax hikes during the middle of a recession are foolhardy.

A survey recently published by the leftwing El País newspaper, which is friendly to the Zapatero government, found that 61 percent of Spaniards disapprove of the way Zapatero is handling the economic crisis. The poll found that 76 percent of Spaniards believe the government's economic measures are too late; 81 percent believe the prime minister has no economic plan and is "improvising."

While some of the larger European economies will post a return to growth in 2009, the Spanish economy is not expected to recover anytime soon.

All this is bad news for Zapatero, who is working overtime to shift the focus of political debate away from the economy towards social proposals such as liberalizing laws on euthanasia and abortion.

Indeed, Zapatero appears determined to continue his quest to transform what was once one of Europe's most conservative societies into a permissive post-modern Socialist utopia, where traditional Judeo-Christian values are cast into the trash bin of history. Since coming to power in April 2004, Zapatero has rallied his political base (and enraged traditionalists) by legalizing gay marriage and adoption, instituting fast-track divorce, pushing stem-cell research, and reducing the role of the Catholic Church in education. In a pointed attack on the sanctity of human life, the Spanish parliament has even granted "human rights" to apes.

But now Zapatero appears to have reached too far. A new law that liberalizes abortion gives girls aged 16 the right to abort without consulting their parents. The initiative has hit a raw nerve with voters on both sides of the political aisle, who are tiring of Zapatero's social re-engineering projects at a time of economic crisis. Recent polls show that if elections were held today, Zapatero would be handily defeated by his conservative rival.

For many Spaniards, including his supporters, Zapatero is an accidental political leader who was thrust into the prime minister's office by the Islamic terrorists who set off a series of train bombs in Madrid that killed 191 people only three days before the 2004 general elections. Although the incumbent PP was widely expected to win another term in office, Zapatero benefited from the hysteria fomented by Spain's left-leaning mass media in the hours before voters went to the polls. With the aid of a motley hodgepodge of leftist and nationalist parties, Zapatero, who failed to win an absolute majority, was able to cobble together a coalition government.

Just days into his first term in office, Zapatero earned himself lasting enmity with the Bush administration for the ham-fisted withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. Moreover, in his desire to become the standard bearer of the European left, Zapatero compounded the problem by spewing a steady flow of anti-American rhetoric that had the effect of alienating the United States even further.

Over time, Zapatero's permanent non-relationship with the most powerful leader in the free world turned into a media obsession in Spain, with the issue consuming many liters of ink in newspapers across the country. The prime minister was one of the only leaders in Europe not to have been invited to the White House for a visit with an American president. Indeed, between 2004 and 2008, Bush and Zapatero exchanged a grand total of only 18 words, each of which were meticulously analyzed by the Spanish media for possible indications of an impending rapprochement. But with the Bush administration it was just not meant to be.

Not surprisingly, Zapatero was euphoric over Obama's election victory. He sent the president-elect a congratulatory letter on November 5. Four days later, at exactly 11pm local Spanish time (with all the details carefully analyzed by the Spanish media, which dubbed the event Spain's D-Day because Spain now matters in the world), Obama perfunctorily returned Zapatero's favor and the two had a ten-minute telephone conversation.

As it turns out, Zapatero and Obama are soul mates, and not just in terms of ideology. The two were born the same day, albeit one year apart; they are both parents of two daughters; and their favorite sport is basketball. As far as matters of state are concerned, they discussed how Spain might help solve the international financial crisis (Spain is in economic free-fall), and ways in which the two countries can cooperate in fighting climate change (Spain is the source of the biggest increase in so-called greenhouse gas emissions in Europe since 1990). Then, just before hanging up the phone, Zapatero told Obama: "Hey, just call me José Luis."

Now, after five long years, Zapatero has finally got an invitation to visit the Oval Office, which is being portrayed by some as his shining foreign policy achievement. In the logic of Spanish politics, a photo opportunity with Obama should earn Zapatero a promotion from provincial politician to international statesman. Unfortunately for Zapatero, however, Spain's economic situation is now so dire that most Spaniards would prefer that he fix problems at home before doing photo-ops abroad.

Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group