José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. You see his name bandied around in the press and on television, but who is he and what does he really do? This man whose every move, every word, dictates the immediate future of Spain, is loved and hated in equal measures. Gay couples, single mums and carers love him, terrorism victims are out for his blood, whilst cartoonists liken him in appearance to Mr Bean.
Yet Zapatero – or ZP, as he is commonly known – is a mere human being and makes mistakes like the rest of us. The difference is that our president’s mistakes have an impact on more than 40 million people, many of whom are far from forgiving.
Zapatero represents the PSOE party, which stands for Partido Socialista de Obreros de España (literally translated, the socialist party for Spanish labourers). Its stance has, as the title suggests, always been left of the centre and favours improving conditions for the less-privileged in Spanish society. The party’s direct rivals are the right-wing PP, or Partido Popular (Popular Party).
A law graduate and ex-professor, Zapatero’s long and varied career was inspired by his grandfather’s final words and has mostly taken place close to home. A native of León, he was in fact born in Valladolid because his mother, Purificación Zapatero, wanted her father, an acclaimed paediatrician in Valladolid, to assist with the birth.
After studying a law degree at the University of León and going on to lecture in his own faculty on constitutional law, 26-year-old José Luis was elected as deputy for the PSOE for León and voice of the regional ombudsman.
He in fact entered politics at the age of 19, becoming affiliated to the PSOE as soon as he was old enough, moved by his paternal grandfather’s final words. The young José Luis never met Captain Juan Rodríguez Lozano, as he was shot dead in Puente Castro (León) during the military coup of 1936 which marked the start of the Civil War and Franco’s coming into power.
Rodríguez Lozano, a soldier in the army, had been part of a revolt against the Second Republic led by the PSOE and the general workers’ union (UGT). In Rodríguez Lozano’s final testament, written hours before his execution, he stated: “I die innocent, and I forgive,” and also that he would pass away with “an infinite anxiety for peace, love of all that is right and good and the social improvement of the humble.”These words, which his grandson would read over 40 years later aged just 14, were what compelled him to join the PSOE and are recorded in his official biography.
During his speech as candidate for general secretary of the PSOE, a position for which he was elected four times consecutively, Zapatero stated “I believe socialism is about roots, loyalty, conviction. People only believe you if you defend what you’ve been and what you are.”
Having been a member of the Permanent Deputation of the Lower Chamber, elected as government deputy in the general elections five times running, held the positions of spokesperson for the ministries of Justice, Interior and Public Administration, he was considered by the press as the most active member of the PSOE thanks to his compassion for the underdog and determination to improve social and political conditions for the people he represented.
All this before the age of 40. And four years later, he would take up his position in the hotseat in Madrid and bring about radical changes in the law that would affect the ordinary person on the street, reflecting their own, everyday concerns – concerns that many governments in Spain and other countries have overlooked, and continue to do so.
Full of bright ideas?
Banners proclaiming 'No a la guerra' and public protests hit home – no sooner was the ink dry on the public’s voting slips, Zapatero withdrew Spain’s troops from Iraq.
His next radical idea was to legalise marriage between couples of the same sex and allow them to adopt children. Within little over a year, partnerships comprising two men or two women were able to join in matrimony on exactly the same terms as heterosexual couples – although, as yet, not in church. Zapatero even changed the Constitution’s wording from ‘man and wife’ to ‘spouses’.
To the outraged right-wing PP, Zapatero declared, “I challenge you to look a gay person in the face and tell them they are a second-class citizen,” adding that a person’s romantic preferences did not ‘stop them from being Spanish’ (understood, of course, as ‘legal resident in Spain’).
On the cards for this year is the Ley de Igualdad, calling for equal rights for men and women, financial benefits for new mums, longer maternity and paternity leave, and stamping out sexism and harrassment in the workplace. Zapatero wants to see an approximate 50-50 split of men and women on company payrolls, in senior management and in local government – mirroring his own cabinet, which is made up almost equally of men and women including government first vice-president, Valencia-born María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, the first female ever to occupy this position in Spain.
Not all of the premier’s decisions have been quite so popular, however. In November 2005, his proposed modifications to education laws, which came under the heading of the Ley Orgánica de Educación (LOE), provoked an outburst amongst teachers, parents and even the Church, leading to a massive protest march in the capital.
Spain at the time held one of the worst records in the EU for poor performance in schools, despite pupils being swamped with homework and tests, and threats of having to repeat a year if they failed their end-of-year exams, meaning a reform was crucial to safeguard children’s future.
Yet the proposed reform caused an explosive reaction from the public. Less time would be given to core subjects in regions with co-official, second languages, in order to spend time on these. Religious Education would become optional and not count towards either final results or university entrance. Passing end-of-year exams would be made easier and those who failed taken out of class and put in smaller groups to help them pass the next time around.
The idea was sound, aiming for equality and the universal right to an education, yet parents feared their choice of schools would be restricted, teachers felt undermined and unappreciated, and most believed the LOE would do nothing to improve standards of education.
Zapatero’s ‘four State pillars of well-being’, a radical shake-up of society’s roles that he has been working on since coming into power, included the legal rights of everyone in Spain to a pension, healthcare, and education. The fourth ‘pillar’ is the Ley de Dependencia, recently approved, allowing all those unable to look after themselves because of illness or disability to receive help from the State.
However, opposing parties said the law was three years overdue and funds were limited. Indeed, Murcia’s regional government claims its residents in need of daily assistance will receive just 5.50€ a day – half the hourly rate for home care.
A costly mistake
Most would argue, though, that the president’s biggest error to date has been his insistence in negotiating with Basque separatist terrorist cell, ETA. His dogged determination to discuss the issues on the table and hold peace talks with them fuelled five demonstrations in Madrid organised by the Victims of Terrorism Association (AVT).
Zapatero, in response to the public outrage, declared, “What is important is not who ends the violence, or how, but nobody is going to force us not to do so with reason and democracy.”
AVT and the Spanish public in general, after suffering more than 30 years of bombings and killings, believed the premier’s approach was too lenient and the etarras should be treated in the same way as any other murderers – by being thrown in jail and left to rot.
On December 30, 2006, midway through the peace process and after a nine-month ceasefire, a bomb planted by ETA blew the car park in Madrid airport’s Terminal 4 off the globe.
Zapatero was forced to admit defeat. “There can be no dialogue with violence,” he stormed, angry and ashamed, in a speech on national television.
However, those whose lives have been affected by terrorism consider it too late – there is no pride in being proved right at such a cost. In yet another series of protests around the country, citizens nationwide branded Zapatero a traitor and called for him to resign.
Although he has admitted to and apologised for what proved to be a big mistake, the president has an uphill climb ahead of him to win back Spain’s confidence in him and stand a chance of winning the next elections.
Like all government leaders, Zapatero will not please everyone and the size of his fan base will constantly vary. Like all government leaders, he is only as good as his last decision.
Yet, undeniably, his intentions have been good and his ideas always aimed at fair treatment and quality of life for the ordinary citizen. Zapatero may have his work cut out, but since his election victory he has shown himself to be truly a people’s president.