Could abortion law backfire on Spain’s Zapatero?
In a country like Spain, where a large majority still identify themselves as at least more-or-less Catholic, you’d think the government would shy away from taking on the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, there are probably few things Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero likes better than a brawl with the bishops.
Lingering anti-clerical sentiment in sectors of Zapatero’s Socialist Party, particularly on its left-most fringes, means the PM has few more effective tools for rallying his voters than the sight of a protest march led by priests and nuns.
(Photo: Prime Minister Zapatero, 5 June 2009/Juan Medina)
At a time when unemployment is closing in on 20 percent, Zapatero knows matters economic are not going to provide anything to cheer his supporters. So there was little surprise when the government rolled out a bill to liberalise abortion laws, including a provision to allow 16 year olds to abort without parental consent, in time for the European elections. At present, Spanish law allows abortion only in certain circumstances, such as if the birth poses a psychogical risk to the mother, although in practice it is easily available.
Just in case the bill didn’t drive the Church into a sufficient paroxysm of rage, the government’s Equality Minister Bibiana Aido, defended the proposal to allow legal minors to seek terminations without their parents’ knowledge by comparing the procedure to breast-enlargement surgery. So, last Friday it must have seemed like mission accomplished to the Socialists when Spain’s bishops duly rebuked them for undermining the country’s moral fabric (see Spanish text of their statement here).
Only one thing is now missing for the manoeuvre to attain political perfection, i.e. to lure the main opposition Popular Party, traditionally allied to the Church, into aligning itself with the religious authorities. From there, thanks to the historical closeness of the Church to the former dictator Francisco Franco, it is but a short rhetorical jump for the Socialists to accuse the PP of being on the extreme right and out of touch.
From a political point of view, it looks like a neat way of keeping your voters amused while you wait for 150 billion euros in extraordinary public spending to revive the economy. And using the strategy of exploiting Spain’s deep divides on social issues has already been very profitable to Zapatero over the past few years, becoming still more important as it has allowed him to steal voters from the fading force of Izquierda Unida, the United Left coalition located to the left of the Socialists.
But this time, the abortion battle looks like it is in danger of proving a miscalculation. The Popular Party is doing its best not to fall into the prime minister’s trap, claiming that its opposition to the law has nothing to do with the position of the Church. Opposition leader Mariano Rajoy now bases his strategy on targetting moderate centrist voters and would sprint across across a busy motorway to avoid getting drawn into any heated debate on social issues.
(Photo: Spanish nun at Madrid anti-abortion rally, 29 March 2009/Sergio Perez)
Even more damagingly, Socialists don’t seem to like the law either, with one poll showing 56 percent of Socialist voters against allowing 16 year old girls to abort without parental consent.
Spain’s main left-wing daily El Pais, which has little love for the Popular Party, recently had an interesting take on how Zapatero’s apparent dependence on pleasing his most socially liberal voters might backfire on him. El Pais quoted a senior member of the PP, who gave thanks for Zapatero: “If he turned towards the centre, the PP wouldn’t know how to respond. But he won’t …. He’s making it easy for us, because he’s always doing things that the middle classes, the moderate people, don’t like.”