Socialist chief sworn in, Spain set for new course

Zapatero criticizes Iraq situation but also wants good relations with U.S.

April 17, 2004|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRID, Spain - A sober Spain embarks today on an uncertain era of change, with a new Socialist government determined to erase the conservatism of recent years and reverse a foreign policy exceedingly favorable to the United States.

Thirty-five days after one of Europe's deadliest terror attacks shook Spain to its core, parliament endorsed Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero yesterday as the country's prime minister. He was to be sworn in by King Juan Carlos today.

Zapatero, as he is universally known, and his Socialist Workers Party won national elections March 14, three days after bombs ripped through four crowded commuter trains in Madrid, killing nearly 200 people. The upset victory unseated the center-right Popular Party, which had ruled for eight years.

With the Socialists in charge, Spain becomes the first country to say it is prepared to abandon the U.S.-led occupation forces struggling to rein in violence inside Iraq. Spaniards overwhelmingly opposed the previous government's support of the war, and Zapatero reiterated yesterday his determination to bring Spain's 1,300 troops home June 30 unless the United Nations assumes military and political control of Iraq.

In marked contrast to outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Zapatero has branded the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq a "fiasco" that is causing death on a daily basis.

"Day after day, we see the continuous deterioration of the situation in Iraq, further and further from the peace and stability that we all desire," Zapatero told parliament. "My government will remove Spain from this illegal and unjust war."

Zapatero, a former law professor and veteran legislator, is a man of compromise and consensus who is loath to completely alienate the United States. His aides have attempted to smooth ruffled American feathers by suggesting that Spain could send additional troops to Afghanistan instead.

"We want to have a good relationship with the United States," Trinidad Jimenez, a senior Socialist official, said in an interview. "But we want a relationship of equals, not one of subordination. One where when it's time to say no, we can say no."

The Socialist government takes over as Spaniards are recovering from the March 11 attacks now blamed on Islamic militants allied, at least philosophically, with al-Qaida. Many voters appeared to blame Aznar and his support of the Bush administration for bringing Islamic wrath down on Spain.

In two days of debate in parliament leading up to yesterday's vote, Zapatero said he would wage "a relentless fight against terrorism, against any terrorism, against all terrorism." He announced plans to place a united command structure over the country's various and sometimes rival intelligence and security services; pour new funding into low-income housing; enhance women's rights; and remove recent rules requiring Catholic instruction in schools.

Instead of looking obediently toward the White House, however, Zapatero is pointing his foreign policy back toward Europe. He wants to improve ties with traditional allies France and Germany, friendships that were strained under Aznar.

Many Spanish voters, who turned out in record numbers to dump the Popular Party, were angry at what they saw as Aznar's arrogant and disingenuous style. They accused the government of manipulating information after the bombings by continuing to blame Basque separatists after evidence pointed elsewhere. It was just the latest in a string of perceived government prevarications.

"The people have felt deceived," said Lola Quinonero, a 47-year-old hospital worker and one of several hundred people protesting outside the parliament as Zapatero was anointed. "We aren't sure Zapatero will be better. ... We'll just have to wait and see."

The Socialists did not win a majority in parliament, complicating Zapatero's ability to rule. He will have to build alliances to press forward his ambitious legislative program. He won yesterday's vote in parliament - 183 to 148 with 19 abstentions - thanks to smaller leftist and regional parties. But they have made clear they will not stand by the Socialists on every issue.

"The government will be weak and unstable," said Mariano Rajoy, head of the Popular Party, which now becomes the main opposition force. "It will have to depend on the will of others."

Until now, Zapatero has distinguished himself basically by not distinguishing himself. He had not made much of a mark in his 18 years in parliament. His nickname is Bambi, a reference to his mild-mannered personality.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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