Zapatero is poised to make changes at home and abroad

New Spanish leader's predecessor left country prosperous but angry

April 18, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MADRID, Spain - Spain's new prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, was sworn in yesterday by King Juan Carlos, setting the country on a new path of sweeping foreign policy and domestic changes.

Zapatero, 43, a Socialist, succeeds a pro-American right-wing leadership that has left the nation more prosperous but has also angered many Spaniards over its authoritarian style. The new prime minister, a lawyer and longtime member of parliament, has been praised, even by his critics, for his mild manner and his inclusive, conciliatory approach.

He won elections held three days after terrorist bombs killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,400 on March 11. His unexpected victory in the midst of that national trauma produced one of the more remarkable political upsets in recent European history.

Although Spanish elections rarely have an effect on the United States, this time they also affected President Bush, who lost a close ally in the war in Iraq, Jose Maria Aznar. Aznar, who stepped down as prime minister after eight years, had been certain that his hand-picked successor, Mariano Rajoy, would win and continue his pro-Washington policies.

But Rajoy, who had led with a small but consistent margin in the polls, was swept aside in a wave of popular outrage. Voters switched after the government insisted that Basque separatists were to blame for the deadly attacks on four commuter trains, even as evidence mounted that Islamist militants were involved.

The election of Zapatero, a new face in Spanish politics, has brought a feeling of change and optimism. Spain has gone through a social and cultural revolution in the past decade, but its conservative laws have lagged behind. Spaniards say they have been scolded too often by their deeply Catholic and conservative leaders.

Zapatero, in a speech to parliament this week, pledged to change laws that many Spaniards see as important - addressing issues such as gay marriage, sexism and domestic violence against women; freeing schools and medical research organizations from restrictions based on Roman Catholic doctrine; and providing more support for the arts.

He also demonstrated a more sensitive approach to the nationalist feelings of Spain's strong autonomous regions, such as Catalonia and the Basque country, where people often felt snubbed by Aznar's centralist approach.

One recurrent criticism of Aznar was that while he promoted stability and economic growth, he had little patience with dissent. As Spaniards increasingly opposed his support for the war in Iraq, he often branded his opponents as anti-Spanish or anti-patriotic, which many found infuriating.

"This was very different from the authoritarian speeches we have been hearing in this chamber," said Jose Antonio Labordeta, a member of parliament from Aragon, after hearing Zapatero setting out policies and debating issues in parliament.

But for all the present good will, Zapatero nonetheless inherits a complicated package of issues. He must confront the aftermath of the March 11 bombings, which has drawn Spain into the international battle against terrorism; Spain's own problems of political violence posed by the Basque militants; and his promise to pull 1,300 Spanish troops out of Iraq, which is bound to create tension with Washington.

All of that, the center-left newspaper El Pais said in an editorial yesterday, is hardly a sinecure.

Confronting the Iraq issue is something Zapatero cannot postpone, having pledged to withdraw Spanish troops unless Iraq is placed under United Nations control or some form of NATO umbrella. Aznar had sent the troops in spite of mass demonstrations and opinion polls that repeatedly showed about 90 percent of Spaniards were against involvement in the war.

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