But in Sunday’s national election, Spanish voters find themselves confronted by some of the same issues facing electorates in the United States and Europe — terrorism, separatism, an economic downturn spurred by a real estate bust, and cultural and religious conflicts between the left and right.
Since moving from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy in the late 1970s, Spanish politicians have dulled the edges of ideological conflicts in an unspoken consensus not to re-open the wounds of the 1930s Spanish Civil War. In a country almost evenly divided between left and right parties, governments made incremental changes in economic and social policies while easing the country into the European Union and NATO.
But since the 2004 election, when Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero ousted the conservative People’s Party government, the changes have been more dramatic and the opposition to them more forceful. That election itself was fueled by unusual bitterness — voters were angry that the government falsely blamed the pre-election Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people on Basque separatists instead of on al-Qaida operatives.
Violence marked the lead-up to this year’s elections when a gunman killed former councilman Isaias Carrasco in the Basque town of Arrasate as he left his home with his wife and daughter, news outlets reported Friday. Although no one claimed responsibility for the attack, Spanish officials again pointed to the Basque separatist group ETA.
When Zapatero entered office, he quickly pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq, which was generally popular, but also pushed through laws legalizing gay rights including marriage, speeding up divorce, granting more rights to women and amnesty to illegal immigrants, and curbing the role of the Catholic Church in state education.
He also embarked on negotiations with ETA, though talks subsequently broke off when the Basque separatist group was accused of carrying off a bombing at the Madrid airport two years ago. The paramilitary group ETA, in its fight for autonomy, has killed more than 800 people since the 1960s.
Most controversially, Zapatero established a “historical memory law” aimed at allowing anti-Franco Civil War victims or their families some redress for war crimes.
Zapatero’s record has provoked a sharp backlash from the right and from the church in a country nominally 80 percent Catholic.
“I have not seen Spanish society so polarized in my life,” said Jaime Pozuelo-Monfort, a 32-year-old academic and businessman who operates a Web site out of New York called 5spaniards.com.
It’s been a campaign of sharp rhetoric between Zapatero and his opponent Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party — Rajoy lost to Zapatero in a 2004 bid to become prime minister.
“You have lied and you have cheated on infinite occasions. And you have lied to me just like you lied to the Spanish people,” Rajoy told Zapatero in the first of two pre-election debates, the first such televised political encounters in 15 years.
But as Pozuelo-Monfort said in a telephone interview, the polarization also breaks on generational lines. Conservative Spaniards over 50, he said, are bitterly unhappy with the fast pace of change.
“But people my age, in their 20s and 30s, don’t understand why politicians are pursuing policies that create polarization,” he added in a reference to the People’s Party campaign rhetoric. Far more than in other European nations, he said, Spanish politicians argue about the past.
Pozuelo-Monfort said this tendency was particularly frustrating to his generation during an election year in which Spain is confronting a severe economic crisis and other domestic problems.
Because so much of the phenomenal economic growth of the past decade has been based on a real estate and construction boom, he said, the economy is more vulnerable to the global credit and real estate crunch, even if its tightly regulated banks have so far escaped the storm.
And a shrinking economy exacerbates the immigration debate. In the past five years, Spain’s immigrant influx from Africa and Eastern Europe has doubled, now comprising 10 percent of its 41 million people. How the country is going to feed, house and educate immigrant families who are dependent on jobs in a shriveling construction industry is a key issue to voters, according to Pozuelo-Monfort.
Events outside Spain’s borders are also on the front burner in the election. Spain was among the abstainers when European Union nations voted on recognizing the independence of Kosovo after it broke away from Serbia early this year. Every post-Franco Spanish administration has struggled to answer the demands of the Catalonia and the Basque country regions for more and more autonomy from the central government. As a result, Spain is the most decentralized nation in Europe except for Belgium, with individual Spanish provinces controlling health care and education programs. In Catalonia, provincial authorities even run the police.
Pozuelo-Monfort, who is not aligned with either major party, acknowledged that there is no way of knowing if separatists’ demands in Catalonia and the Basque regions ultimately will lead to referendums for breaking entirely from Spain, but he said he believes Zapatero’s government has been more effective than the conservatives in handling those issues.
Pre-election polls have consistently given Zapatero’s Socialists an edge of up to 4 percent in the elections, which will decide which party controls the 350-seat Cortes Generales, or parliament. According to Pozuelo-Monfort, that outcome would lead to a coalition of Socialists with smaller regional parties and a government very similar to the one in power — but facing far more severe problems than greeted Zapatero when he took office four years ago on a wave of change.