Anyone living in America, particularly those accustomed to the televised exchanges between Hillary and Barack, would have been surprised by the Spanish presidential debate on Tuesday night between the incumbent Socialist president of the government, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and his Popular Party (PP) rival, Mariano Rajoy. As in any close race, there were plenty of violent accusations flying around; yet the Spanish leaders were not afraid to cite hard statistics and read past quotations to each others’ face. Instead of telling compelling stories about single mothers, displaced workers, and war veterans, they brought graphs of economic performance to the televised debate. And ratings did not waver.
In the end, the detailed presidential debate confirmed what most analysts already expected: Rodríguez Zapatero will be reelected. But more important than better statistics, he has timing on his side, just like the Socialists did when the terrorist attacks in Madrid almost four years ago helped propel them to power.
The two issues that both candidates have acknowledged as central to this election, immigration and the state of the economy, are both profoundly interconnected and likely to benefit the challenger in the coming months. This does not mean that the Rodríguez Zapatero administration has underperformed on these issues. Actually, the opposite is true.
The Socialist government passed comprehensive immigration reforms including an amnesty for certain illegal immigrants in 2005. In a Europe plagued with chronic budget deficits, the administration also run a healthy budget surplus in years of strong economic expansion. According to official finance ministry data, in 2007 the fiscal surplus was the second only to Finland in Europe, totaling over 23 billion euros or 2.3 percent of GDP. In fact, the government grew the surplus over 30 percent in the last year, which was the third consecutive without red on the balance sheet.
But the tides of political economy are quickly changing. The Spanish economic miracle of the last decade, much like America’s, has been rooted in a real estate bubble that started to burst before the one in the U.S. monopolized headlines around the world. Partly because of this, credit conditions in Spain are among the worst in Europe, and the country is particularly vulnerable to the global economic downturn that everyone is expecting. Bad economic performance is a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to the Bank of Spain, consumer confidence is lower than it’s been since the last housing crisis almost a decade ago, and many large conglomerates are finally facing the consequences of borrowing irresponsibly in hopes of a windfall.
Spanish voters may have a particular taste for data-savvy politicians, but their voting preferences are much like those of the rest of the world: There is no worse time to run for reelection than when your electorate is fearing for their pockets. Given these circumstances, the otherwise easy electoral victory for the Socialist administration has become much harder to achieve.
PP leader Rajoy has taken advantage of these economic fears to rally Spanish voters against a related issue: immigration. On Tuesday night, he stated repeatedly that Spain needed “order and control” to limit the influx of workers from abroad. As he correctly pointed out, Spain has taken in more immigrants in the last few years than the United Kingdom and France combined, which has created pressures on existing government infrastructure and social services such as education and healthcare.
Yet in a country whose demographic decline rivals those of rapidly aging Italy and Japan, immigrants are to thank for providing labor to build the economy and sustain over a million pensioners in the social security system.
Spanish voters will most likely reelect Rodríguez Zapatero by a very small margin on Sunday. By contrast to American Democrats, they will go with a proven leader who happens to enjoy statistical data. (To be fair, he is also a more charismatic speaker than his opponent.) Yet regardless of the administration’s good management, the shrinking gap in Spanish polls would probably have given the conservatives power if the election were to held just a few months from now, let alone a year. Then, the economic outlook might have been much worse and immigration might have become an even more divisive issue. The twin issues at the core of the campaign would clearly have benefited the PP by eroding the Socialist base of blue-collar workers afraid of their mortgage payments and foreign labor competition.
Almost four years ago, right before the election, the 11-M terrorist attacks in Madrid turned millions to the streets to protest against former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and his foreign policy, giving Rodríguez Zapatero, then the underdog, a clear edge. Once again, good timing has saved the Socialists’ election fortunes, delaying the inevitable economic doubts that loom in the Spanish horizon.
Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a former Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.