Acting on an election promise to further equality, Zapatero began by breaking the European political mould by appointing 50% of his cabinet portfolios to women. In a recent interview with El Pais, Zapatero cited his mother’s frustration at being unable to pursue her dream of studying medicine as igniting his feminist beliefs. Zapatero and his P.S.O.E. cohorts have also jumped into the gay marriage debate with both feet, and new legislation will see Spain become as progressive as Denmark and Holland on the issue.
And the reforming zeal doesn’t stop there. Divorce is the latest institution to get a P.S.O.E. make-over. The government has just brought forward new legislation to allow “the Spanish to divorce in ten days” as the right wing daily El Mundo put it. The new law aims to speed up uncontested divorce cases and introduces new shared custody guidelines. Abortion law, fairly strict by European standards, is also slated for reform in the new year and will probably lead to an easing of restrictions.
After the honeymoon
In Spain, regional politics is a serious business with powerful regions like Catalonia, the economic powerhouse of the whole peninsula, pressing for ever more autonomy. Secession apart, the government has again committed itself to wide-ranging reform of regional autonomy. Catalonia’s relationship with the E.U. is currently under review and the P.S.O.E. have agreed to Catalonia’s demand for independent representation in the E.U.
Notwithstanding Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey and his caustic remark that all new prime ministers more or less grind to a halt after a few months anyway, Zapatero has wisely used his honeymoon period and a chastened opposition to kickstart a reform drive before the inevitable conservative reaction.
While Tony Blair had that rare Labour leader luck to inherit an economy in good shape that performed obligingly well throughout his first term, Zapatero may not be so lucky. Thus far his prayers at the altar of economic indicators have not been answered and his adversaries have been quick to jump on rising unemployment, poor growth, declining investment and Zapatero´s inexperience repeatedly criticising his “complete lack of an overall economic plan.” Commentators have also begun to weigh in with doubts, one remarking recently that it will take more than that smile and regional pacts to run the Spanish economy.
A shrewd centrist
But behind the smile and the ardent social reform beats the heart of a shrewd economic centrist and there are signs that, a la Blair, Zapatero will try to beat them at their own game. Since taking office there has been frantic behind-the-scenes work to complete trade and investment agreements initiated by the previous administration particularly with the US, where Aznar picked up a congressional medal for promoting US- Spanish investment.
Seen just last month polishing his anti-war rhetoric on a state visit to Tunisia, there is little doubt that it is Zapatero´s international policy-making that has often grabbed the headlines. But with a myriad of reforms already implemented, a radical overhaul of higher education, Red Ken style congestion charges and new immigrant policy pencilled in for autumn, the real substance of his first six months lies in his domestic agenda and on that score at least, he may yet prove the exception to Sir Humphrey´s golden rule.