Just as incoming American presidents are given the atomic “briefcase” by their predecessors, along with the codes for launching a nuclear attack, perhaps Spanish prime ministers will henceforth receive a begging cup and a German phrasebook. It was al Qaeda that made José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) Spain’s prime minister; Lehman Brothers and the euro crisis have unmade him, putting his country at the financial mercy of its European neighbors. Zapatero came to power when jihadists bombed several trains in the heart of Madrid on election weekend 2004. The bombs convinced Spaniards they would be safer voting for the candidate more congenial to al Qaeda’s reading of the Iraq war.
This week prime minister-elect Mariano Rajoy, leader of the conservative Popular party, put an end to seven years of Zapaterismo. He will take power on Christmas Eve. Zapatero’s successor as PSOE standard-bearer, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, got the lowest vote total the Socialists have ever received. It was Rajoy whom Zapatero beat in 2004, to the surprise of everyone, including Zapatero himself. Once he had pulled Spain out of the Iraq war coalition, he struggled to find things to do. That meant indulging the whims of whatever interest group was complaining most loudly. The achievements of the Zapatero years are numerous and nugatory. Gay marriage. A record number of women in the cabinet. Divorce reform.
Another bizarre priority of Zapatero was to erase every trace of dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain for four decades, from its bloody civil war until his death in 1975. One need not approve of Franco, and until Zapatero came to power one did not need to disapprove of him either. But one must take Spain for what it is—a country of deep and permanent ideological divisions. There were statues of Franco all over Spain, and Zapatero set out to have them all toppled. He dragged Spain into a self-deception. Just as official France obliterated all memory of its collaboration in the immediate aftermath of World War II, so did Zapatero—long after the fact, and unnecessarily—try to convince Spaniards that their “real” country had nothing to do with forces that had ruled it for much of the past century.
What resulted was a strange climate of opinion. Zapatero mixed the ideological hothouse atmosphere of the European 1930s with a futuristic utopia of infinitely negotiable gender roles. The only thing that was missing was the present. When Spain’s economy began to lose altitude, and then went into a death spiral following the collapse of Lehman, it didn’t have enough to do with fascism or gender roles to hold Zapatero’s attention. Zapatero remained confident that men who could no longer put food on the family table would consider gay marriage and liberal abortion rights a reasonable substitute. They didn’t, of course, and by September 2010 workers had called a general strike. It fizzled, but to a progressive Manichean of Zapatero’s ilk, it was traumatic to see the forces of the working class arrayed against him.
Spain’s predicament in the economic crisis was the opposite of most countries’. Many, like Ireland, had a mostly healthy real economy that was undone by the excesses of the financial sector. Spain’s financial sector was quite responsible—although the country had a real estate bubble, it emerged from it better than the United States in many respects. It did not have a lot of securitization or derivatives. It had stringent capital requirements for home mortgages. It had a central bank that was competent and alert. But starting in the Franco era, Spain’s labor market had been strictly regulated to provide security at the expense of income. With the coming of democracy in the late 1970s, the benefits offered to workers grew ever more generous. The result is a two-tier labor market. Workers in old, inefficient industries have preposterously generous pay packages and benefits. But companies cannot afford to hire young Spaniards.
It is in Spain, more than in any other country, that one can see the weak position of European youth in the face of the present crisis. The unemployment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in the job market is 46 percent. And they are weak politically. Although many have been occupying various plazas in Spain, starting with Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, since May, they have so far been unable to get either Zapatero or Rajoy to take them seriously. This weakness may have a demographic cause. The collapse of Spanish birthrates means that young adults have less than half the weight in Spain’s population that they had at midcentury.
Rajoy has not yet mapped a strategy for taking Spain out of the Zapatero years. One of the complaints about Rajoy—you can read it in the conservative/free-market El Mundo as often as in the socialistic El País—is that he has come to power in an emergency without making clear what his economic policies are. It may be that, as the leader of one of the eurozone’s mendicant countries, he must play his cards close to his chest. On the other hand, it may be that Spaniards, like the rest of us, are just being introduced to a new political style. Leaders who now have the job of seizing back gifts recklessly bestowed are bound to be less voluble than those who handed them out in the first place.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.