Zapatero wants brave, new Spain

Prime minister-elect supports gay marriage, eradication of sexism


MADRID, Spain - In the aftermath of the train bombings here, it seemed that the election of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and his Socialist Party would have its greatest effect in foreign policy - the possible withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq, the repair of damaged relations with France and Germany. But the realization is dawning that the greatest effects may ultimately be felt in Spain itself.

Zapatero, it seems, thinks that his country should have a sexual and social revolution.

The 43-year-old lawyer wants to legalize some form of gay marriage, rid public schools and medical research of Roman Catholic dogma, create nonpartisan state television and enact laws eradicating sexism in Spanish society.

These are not just idle campaign promises. In a speech Friday to Socialist leaders, he said: "The time has come for extreme respect for the sexual opinions of every individual, a time for a secular vision." His administration, he added, will mark "the beginning of complete equality of the sexes, of the unceasing fight against criminal machismo."

Zapatero wants nothing less than a brave, new Spain, one that he said in the speech will be "modern, cultured, tolerant."

At first, this sounds strange. As the world's eighth-largest economy, and growing faster than most others in the European Union, Spain is certainly modern. And of all the countries in Europe, Spain is already among the most cultured, tolerant and socially liberal. This is, after all, the country that produced the anything-goes filmmaker Pedro Almodovar.

One of the most enduring features of the post-Franco era has been the celebration and protection of individual choice and freedom of expression, even when it clashes with traditional Catholic doctrine.

That may explain why prostitution (but not pimping) is legal, and the classified ads for the services so explicit in liberal and conservative newspapers. Or why Barcelona is one of Europe's leaders in the pornography industry, with Private Media Group, a leading adult entertainment company, trading on Nasdaq.

Spain's gay community is vibrant, flamboyant and politically active. Drug use by individuals in the privacy of their homes is tolerated.

So why the need for radical change?

Most immediately, Zapatero wants to purge the country of the residue of conservatism that marked Jose Maria Aznar's eight-year administration. Although 94 percent of Spaniards are Catholics, a recent survey indicated that only 12 percent of young people between the ages of 13 and 24 go to Mass every week, and most Spaniards favor the strict separation of church and state.

Some changes will be easier than others. Last year, Spain passed an unpopular law that would make religious instruction a required part of the curriculum in public schools. Under the Zapatero administration, the law will not go into effect.

As for gay marriage, some form of civil union is already in force in most of Spain's 17 autonomous regions, but there is no countrywide protection under the law. Zapatero pledged in a television interview after the election to introduce legislation to put gay unions "on the same footing as marriage," even if he waffled a bit, adding: "Marriage is perhaps not the best word."

It helps that 68 percent of Spaniards favor gay marriage according to a Gallup poll in 2003 (compared with 58 percent in France and 47 percent in Italy). But on the more delicate and contentious issue of adoptions by gay couples, Zapatero has promised only to find "broad consensus."

But Zapatero's most sweeping vision in domestic policy is to transform the role of women.

His government, he has said, will make women respected in Spain, guarantee equality between men and women, force men to contribute more to family duties and even "eradicate machismo." Education, he added, is the key to changing attitudes.

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