What's New for an Old, Catholic Spain? Four years ago today, bombings rocked Madrid's commuter train line just days before the national election. Journalist Jerome Socolovsky explains what's changed and what hasn't as the country welcomes the re-election of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Socialist politician won his bid by a statistical fraction.
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What's New for an Old, Catholic Spain?

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What's New for an Old, Catholic Spain?

What's New for an Old, Catholic Spain?

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The reelection of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero this weekend seemed fairly uneventful as compared to his election four years ago. Remember four years ago today, March 11th, 2004. Madrid was reeling from terrorist bombings at commuter stations. One hundred ninety-one people died, 1,800 were injured, and it happened just three days before the election. Zapatero won then because voters wanted change.

They blamed the conservative government of the time for Spain's participation in Iraq and its dismissal of evidence that radical Islamists not Basque militants were responsible for the bombs. But this year, the social politician won his reelection bid by only a statistical fraction. Joining us now from Madrid to talk about the two faces of Spain is journalist Jerome Socolovsky. Hi, Jerome.


STEWART: So first of all, four years ago today, the bombings at Madrid's commuter train line just days before this national election. How did that event set the stage for where Zapatero is today?

SOCOLOVSKY: Well, that event set the stage by basically giving Zapatero not a free hand, but quite a bit of latitude to do what he wanted with Spain. And he took Spain on, pretty much, a sharp left turn over the past four years, pushing through legislation that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago in Spain. He legalized same sex marriage. He made divorce easier.

He supported easing restrictions on abortion. He pursued a massive amnesty for undocumented workers, and in general, he clashed with the Church and even threatened to cut the funding that it gets. It still - it's not a state religion here, but because of its historic place, it has privileged access to public funds.

STEWART: Wait a minute, we're talking about a country that's 95 percent Catholic, and you're talking about legalizing gay marriage and fast-tracking divorce. Are there two worlds co-existing inside of Spain right now?

SOCOLOVSKY: Yeah, there are two worlds. And I would even say that this last election kind of solidified the divide between those two worlds. The Socialists sort of expanded and are including more of the far left, which used to vote for the former Communist party. Now their supporters seem to be voting for the Socialists. And the right wing, the Popular Party in this last election, pretty much held on to what they had. And even they improved. Not enough to win the election, of course. But they got a few more seats in Parliament.

Now Spain is overwhelmingly Catholic. It depends on which survey you see. Eighty-five to 95 percent of people identify themselves as Catholic. Lots of people baptize their children. They get married in a church. We have this sort of shrine just across the way from where we live, and there are weddings there all the time. It's a shrine to a saint, and people really still cling to those traditions. At the same time, church attendance has one of the lowest rates in Europe. People don't identify with the hierarchy here, and when Zapatero legalized same-sex marriage, the approval rating for that was between 60 and 70 percent.

STEWART: Now, we mentioned that he won by a very slim margin, and you mentioned that the other party actually did fairly well. They did fine in the parliamentary elections. Does he have the support to move forward with any of his plans for the next four years?

Mr. SOCOLOVSKY: Well, it's going to be kind of hard over the next four years, and especially since the economy is slowing down. So he faces some tough years ahead. And he will have to have support from some of the smaller parties. And the smaller parties which he really needs to get a majority in parliament to push through legislation are Nationalist parties in the regions of Catalonia, which is the area around Barcelona and up in the Basque region.

And those Nationalist parties, they want more self-rule, and they're pushing for a lot of things that really raise hackles on the right. Up in the Basque region, the elected regional leader has said he wants to have a referendum on self-determination later this year. So that's going to be one of the first challenges for Zapatero.

STEWART: We're speaking with Jerome Socolovsky from Madrid about the reelection of Spain's prime minister. Let me take you back again to the election four years ago, and we talked about how people in Spain wanted change. But obviously, the bombings happened before the election. Did the bombing help Zapatero get elected?

One of the major blunders was the sinking of a tanker, a big oil tanker off the coast of Spain. And at the beginning the government was saying, oh, it's no big deal. And they even tried to tow the ship out to sea instead of bringing it into port to fix it. And when it became the biggest environmental disaster in this country, a lot of people were pretty upset about that. So it was kind of just another strike against the previous government.

But having said that, Spain was 90 percent against the war. There were huge demonstrations here, anti-war demonstrations which Zapatero marched in. He led those demonstrations. And a lot of people, you know - when the bombings happened, a lot of - the anger of a lot of people, I guess - you know, if anything, for many people, tipped the balance, and they went out and voted in what, you know, can be seen as a kind of a protest vote.

MARTIN: And quickly before I let you go, this reelection, does it have any specific impact for the United States?

SOCOLOVSKY: I think, for the U.S., it will pretty much stay the same. Zapatero hasn't really played a major role on the world stage. In the beginning, he started campaigning against the Iraq war. He's moderated that. I don't think it will - I think Zapatero's more focused on Europe at the moment.

MARTIN: Jerome Socolovsky, a journalist from Madrid, Spain. Thanks, Jerome.

SOCOLOVSKY: You're welcome.

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