Spanish voters back Socialists
Spaniards on Sunday reelected Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and the ruling Socialist Workers Party, turning out in large numbers after an acrimonious campaign that accented deep divisions in Spanish society.
But the Socialists defeated the right-wing Popular Party by a narrow margin and fell short of gaining an absolute majority in the lower house of parliament. That could hamper their ability to govern and foreshadow another four-year term possibly as contentious as the one coming to an end.
Waving red-and-white party flags and chanting the name of their leader, jubilant Socialists celebrated outside their party headquarters in Madrid and across the country. Spain's last national elections, in 2004, came three days after the country suffered continental Europe's deadliest terrorist attack.
"The Spanish people have spoken clearly," Zapatero said in a victory speech to the crowd. "They have agreed that it is time to open a new era, a new era without the hostilities, an era that excludes confrontation and seeks agreement."
A politician not known for his charisma, Zapatero, 47, beamed as he pledged to pursue the liberal social reforms that he launched in his first term but to also "correct mistakes," offering "a firm hand, but an outstretched hand."
He stood behind a huge red lectern in the shape of a Z, for Zapatero.
The prime minister opened his remarks by paying homage to the five people killed by Basque separatists during his government, including a Socialist activist shot to death less than 48 hours before the election.
At the Popular Party headquarters, supporters were as noisy as if they had won. The party's prime ministerial candidate, Mariano Rajoy, and other party leaders conceded defeat but pledged to continue waging a sharp opposition. Despite its loss, the Popular Party won more seats than it did in the last election, which allowed supporters a measure of hope.
"Everyone knows what we believe," Rajoy said from the balcony of his party headquarters. "Everyone knows the values we defend. We will rise to the circumstances."
The Socialists won 169 seats in the 350-seat lower house, five more than in 2004 but seven short of the absolute majority that would have eased their ability to govern. With 154 seats, six more than last time, the Popular Party remains a major force.
With a once-robust economy starting to sour and a resurgence in political violence, turnout was high for Sunday's vote. Election officials said more than 75% of the 35 million eligible voters cast ballots, equaling the turnout in 2004, when train bombings by Islamic militants drove people, especially first-time voters, to the polls in near-record numbers.
At the time, many voters were furious with the then-ruling Popular Party for attempting to blame the attacks on Basque separatists even as evidence pointed to Islamic militants. Voters also sought to punish the government for involving Spain in the U.S.-led Iraq war, which the overwhelming majority of the country opposed.