Spain urges turnout for EU referendum

$9 million being spent to encourage vote on a new constitution

February 19, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRID, Spain - Stars from the Spanish rock scene, the soccer field and even outer space peer from television sets with messages aimed at stirring Spain's civic spirit.

Thousands of cans of a fizzy energy drink called Referendum Plus are being distributed free, telling voters to vote yes, vote no, just vote.

The gimmicks are part of a $9 million promotional campaign aimed at rallying people to the polls tomorrow when Spain becomes the first country in the European Union to vote on the continent's new constitution.

Polls indicate that Spaniards decisively favor the constitution.

At stake, however, is an important psychological boost for other European countries that will be watching Spain's exercise, as well as a political test for the Socialist government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

The 465-article charter is considered a defining document for the emerging 25-nation bloc. It establishes a foreign minister post and a full presidency, ending the current rotating position. It also simplifies law-making procedures.

For Spain, becoming the first to ratify the constitution would help validate this nation's climb from a sleepy backwater that came late to democracy after decades of Fascist dictatorship - a point that Zapatero stresses in rallies and speeches. Spain has received $220 billion in subsidies since joining the European club in 1986, and its economy has grown steadily. Two out of every three miles of roadway built in Spain since the country gained membership were financed with EU money, Zapatero says as part as his "vote-yes" campaign.

"Europe has helped Spain a lot, and that's why we want to be the first to return that help ... in a referendum," Zapatero told supporters this month.

With its political prestige thus at stake, the biggest worry the government has is that turnout will be embarrassingly low.

Hence, the gimmicks. Soccer star Emilio Butragueno of Real Madrid and Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque, who has flown two space missions, have appeared in TV ads reciting portions of the constitution. The referendum has been promoted at games. At a concert, dancers performed a flamenco version of the European Union's anthem, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, in a study for a Madrid think tank, warned, "Any participation lower than 50 percent would open numerous questions over whether this is the European Constitution that satisfies the natural and instinctive Europeanism of the Spanish people."

Most of Spain's major political parties, on the left and right, are encouraging citizens to vote in favor of the constitution.

"I'm voting yes, for reasons of pragmatism," said Ricardo Calvo, 54, a retired bank employee. "In 2,000 years we've never agreed on anything. The European Union is the only way to mix European cultures and to overcome nationalisms. ... The constitution treaty is Europe's salvation."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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