The Zapatero effect - does it really exist?

Article published on April 12, 2004
community published
Article published on April 12, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

First Spain, then France: on March 28th all but one of France’s regions moved to the right. Are we witnessing the beginning of a second Socialist wave since 1997 on our old continent? When will it be Europe’s turn? Left-wing Spain, left-wing Europe?

The elections of March 14th, also known as ‘14-M’, was not a result born of fear but of lassitude, a victory for the Spanish people’s democratic maturity. The Madrid attacks haven’t changed Spain but they did rub Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s face in his own contradictions and rouse social awareness that encouraged people to go to the ballot boxes. And so Spain moved to the left. . It was a vote of punishment, yes, but this also reflected a deeper determination to change, a political desire that is normally only shown by those abstaining. How the change in Spanish Government will affect the member states and Europe in general remains to be seen. Will the so-called ‘Zapatero effect’ really change anything?

The ebb and flow of Conservative and socialist tides?

Even if the left emerged as clear winners in France's regional electionsit would be jumping the gun to link it directly to the victory of Spain’s Socialist Party. If the victory of "ZP" did indeed have an effect on the French elections, and it obviously did, albeit one that is difficult to quantify, then it was not on the direction of the vote but on the actual decision to vote. The French can thank the Spanish for showing them that the ballot box is the most effective way available of making their voices heard and of getting their political desires carried out. This was demonstrated by the lower rate of abstention during the regional elections. The Zapatero effect is a slap in the face for this abstention and those who abstain. It’s not socialist ideas that are being pushed to the fore, but rather the power of the electorate.

Europe will not move to the left. The socialists’ landslide victory in France was first and foremost a punishment for disastrous management by the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and was an expression of widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling right-wing UMP party. Socialist majorities were also voted in at the end of the 1990s when Prime Minister Tony Blair and Lionel Jospin and Chancellor Gerhard Schröeder took over government responsibilities in their respective countries. On March 12, 2000 José Maria Aznar’s Popular Party, reversed the trend when he extended his stay at the Moncloa, the residence for Spain’s head of government, by winning an absolute majority in parliament . Right-wing victories then occurred all over Europe. At the start of 2000 the Freedom Party entered the Austrian Government; in May 2001 Berlusconi was elected; then Norway and Denmark followed suit, as did Portugal in 2002. Not to mention the disastrous month of April 2002 in France when the Front National made it to the second round of the presidential elections. But the conservative wave didn’t stop there. Let’s not forget the Netherlands in January 2003, and finally Greece, where on March 7 , 10 years of left-wing government came to an end. It's certainly not ZP who will change all of that.

Elections: one moment of pent-up emotion?

The Spanish elections must open our eyes to the issues of abstention and voting practices. What does voting in Europe actually stand for today? Is it an expression of a determination to change a system, or is it just a loyalty to a party and its ideas? The Spanish elections of March 14th proved that the ballot box could be a way for people to express their anger and their sense of national duty. But why isn’t this automatic? Why did the French masses, that protested on May 1st 2002, not vote in the following legislative elections? What happened to those who suddenly joined the Socialist Party afterApril 21? What happened to the enthusiasm that brought so many out onto the streets? Will elections continue on a route that will turn them, just like these demonstrations, into single moments of pent-up emotion for a confused people?

The Zapatero effect elsewhere

Above all else, the ZP effect represents hope for Europe. When compared to the letter of the eight, instigated by Aznar in support of the “old Europe/new Europe” dig by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, ‘March 14th’ has freed up one of Europe’s key players. Spaniards are now back on the same playing field, they are part of an EU that claims to be independent and against the war in Iraq. It’s a move towards a united Europe, putting the old continent a step closer to adopting a Constitution. Now, we just have to wait for Italy. The fall of Aznar is a serious stumbling block for the US led ‘coalition’. This factor will influence coming elections across Europe, especially in those countries with troops serving in Iraq. It could also impact the US presidential election next November. This may not be the case for Great Britain however. The alternative to Tony Blair – whose socialist credentials are increasingly questioned – is not great. Unlike most other European countries, in the UK the Conservative opposition also supports the war in Iraq. In Spain, Zapatero had been speaking out against the war and the deployment of Spanish troops from the beginning. Today by trying to break certain ties with US President George W. Bush, he is responding to the demands of the Spanish people. Spain is moving back into the European fold, the old Europe. It has reaffirmed its European commitment and is redirecting its energy, youthfulness and democratic values towards the continent. Being mature is definitely not the same as being old.