There are some notable similarities between the composition of today’s Spanish elections and the enduring themes of the current U.S. presidential race. This makes sense because, like it or not, Europe has to answer the same existential question we do: Who are we and what do we stand for? In fact, due to geography, historical precedent, and economic and military limitations, Spain’s tension between national security and social welfare is more heightened than our own.
Spain’s prime ministerial main event unfolded like a cartoon exaggeration of a McCain-Obama showdown. As the New York Times notes, the conservative Popular Party’s candidate for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy
has not been helped by his personal style. He has a graying beard, apparently to cover scars from a car accident years ago, that makes him look old-fashioned and older than his years. He laces his speeches with 19th-century expressions and suffers from unfortunate nervous habits, sticking out his tongue and bulging his eyes when he is angry.
His opponent, the current Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s “came into office with no government experience,” and according to the foreign affairs spokesman of the Popular Party, “He has a radical outer layer and a vacuum inside.”
The exaggerated similarities are more than superficial. Rajoy supported the deployment of Spanish troops to fight alongside Americans in Iraq, and he maintains a tough-on-terror stance today. Zapatero was elected days after the March 2004 Madrid train bombings in hopes that he would take Spain out of the war. He complied with alacrity, immediately removing all Spanish troops from Iraq. He is not merely an advocate of negotiating with terrorists, but a practitioner as well. His overt talks with the militant Basque separatist group ETA turned covert after they bombed Madrid’s Airport in 2006. But talk they still did.
Despite continued Islamist terror plots within the country, unabated ETA attacks, and Spain’s first economic downturn in a decade, Zapatero has polled as the consistent favorite. He’s led the country in accordance with his “secular vision,” legalizing gay marriage and expanding all manner of benefits. As warm and fuzzy as these policies have made Spaniards feel, there seemed to be a growing concern about the price paid in security and job loss. Zapatero’s margins had steadily shrunk.
In 2004, Spain saw the enemy and chose to go the appeasement route. Hoping to avoid, rather than confront, those who sought to destroy them, the people of Spain elected a prime minister to make nice to people who are sworn never to do so in return. Four years later, nearly to the day, Spain has had another pre-election terrorist attack. On Friday, the Socialist Party’s former city councilman was gunned down; the ETA is suspected. It does no good to conflate the ETA with Islamists, but a soft approach to one makes you vulnerable to both. Spanish voters went to the polls today to either declare the last four years a failed experiment or some sort of workable blueprint. Over the same period of time Zapatero has been in office, France and Germany have largely dropped their anti-U.S. postures and come around to a more Bush-friendly position.
The question facing Europe isn’t whether it wants to be Old Europe or New Europe, but rather how badly it wants to exist at all. The U.S.’s concerted anti-terrorism efforts have paradoxically enabled us to forget that that’s the same question we need to ask. Today’s election results have told us how they’ve answered. Zapatero has been reelected, and once again there are cartoonish parallels to the U.S. "The Spanish people have spoken clearly and they have decided to open a new phase,” he told supporters. We thought we knew change rhetoric? Spain just tapped the snooze bar and their prime minister is calling it a "new phase."