The Tale of a President: José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero

José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero became the fifth President of Spain’s young democracy on March 14, 2004, three days after Islamist terrorists killed 191 and injured thousands in Madrid commuter trains, the worst terrorist massacre in Spain’s history. The apparently surprising victory does however not reveal Zapatero’s ever-growing determination to reach the highest political office in Spain, with a quiet attitude and a seemingly effortless approach.

Zapatero’s grandfather and his father’s father, Captain Lozano, was shot to death by fascists on Francisco Franco’s side on August 18, 1936, an event that will drive much of Zapatero’s determination to reach the Presidency and rule from the left. Zapatero remembers the long conversations at night with his father and his older brother about politics, law or literature. In his last written note, Captain Lozano writes “that when it be appropriate, it should be proclaimed that I was no traitor to the Homeland, and my belief was always based on my infinite desire for peace, the love of the good, and the social improvement of the humble”. Zapatero’s father, Juan Rodríguez García-Lozano, lost his father at the age of 9. Later on Juan would earn a law degree and work as an attorney in León in 1950, the city where Zapatero was born ten years later.

He is described as being a good student, sometimes excellent, but never a nerd. He used to sign his homework with the two initials PC, supposed to correspond to the initials for Communist Party (Partido Comunista). Zapatero’s nickname in his teenage years was Papes, because of his pronounced cheecks that reminded his friends of a dog that was featured in an advertisement of the shoe manufacturer Hush Puppies. The pronounced cheecks that he still has today were due to a strange disease he suffered when he was 13 years old, diagnosed by his doctors at the time as a Maltan fiever, that kept him away from school for four months. Anecdotes of the time include his support of FC Barcelona, contrary to the majority of his friends that were supporters of Real Madrid, his Karate green belt, and his admiration for music band Supertramp. During his teenage years he continued to build up his Socialist ideology nourished by his father’s communist beliefs and admiration for Mao Tse Tung’s agrarian reform.

Zapatero was only sixteen when he attended Felipe González Marquez’s first public appearance in August of 1976 in Gijón, a city in northern Spain situated the Region of Asturias. The Socialist Party would be subsequently legalized in February of 1977.

He attended Law School like his father and his brother in León, where he met Sónsoles, his future wife. During his college years Zapatero was impressed by the movie Johny got his gun. He did not fulfill his military obligations as he managed to postpone them because of his college studies and his later appointment as a Law Professor. Both his grandfather Captain Lozano and his father-in-law were veterans. During his college years he was class representative.

Zapatero became an affiliate of the Socialist party right after turning 18. He only mentioned his affiliation weeks later, because he was afraid his father would advise against it. Zapatero married Sónsoles in 1990 in a traditional catholic ceremony, a decision taken by an agnostic Zapatero to satisfy his mother-in-law, which Oscar Campillo (Zapatero’s biography writer) thinks was a move that reflects his pragmatism. Later comments will categorize Zapatero more as an ideologue than as a pragmatist.

His successful career as a politician catapulted him to Secretary General of the small province of León when he was only 22 in 1982. He would later become the youngest Member of Parliament when he was elected to the Spanish Assembly Congreso de los Diputados in 1986. As a politician he has always kept alive the historic memory of the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, honoring his grandfather’s legacy. In the four years that elapsed since Felipe Gonzalez Marquez lost the 1996 general election and Zapatero became Secretary General of the Socialist party in 2000, the Socialists had two unsuccessful Secretary Generals, namely Josep Borrell (former President of the European Parliament) and Joaquin Almunia (current EU Commissioner for Economic Affairs). The Socialist Party’s second consecutive loss in 2000 against former President Aznar triggered an unprecedented process of primaries that saw a victorious Zapatero emerge as the surprising new Secretary General and Opposition Leader.

Many would argue his role as Opposition Leader from 2000 to 2004 was constructive. Others would argue that he practiced the Opposition of the demonstration, joining on a regular basis the college students or the trade unions against Aznar’s unsuccessful reforms. He suggested an Antiterrorist Pact signed by the two major parties. His firm determination to oppose the unilateral invasion of Iraq from the very beginning was critical to his surprise win in 2004. A left-wing politician, Zapatero won the 2004 election with a message that would stress a come back to the ideals of civic republicanism, of “the free citizens that do not wait for the Government to solve their problems, but who demand that the Government provide with the resources necessary to solve them”, he argued.

He is a listener that surrounds himself by comrades but not fighters. He is more of a team player than a leader and has phenomenal soft skills. He knows how to choose his advisors and Ministers and is a great orator. He is not necessarily brilliant in economics or foreign affairs, lacks language skills, but is a great political strategist that knows how to fight the political battles of his time in a country, Spain, which is extremely difficult to rule and typically requires coalition governments and alliances with Basque and Catalan nationalists, who are in continuous demand for devolution.

Zapatero’s major accomplishments were the immediate withdrawal of the Spanish troops from Iraq, an election promise, and the implementation of a social agenda that approved the gay marriage and attacked discrimination against women and domestic violence. On the economic front he lived on the successes of his predecessor and on the economic policies implemented by Rodrigo de Rato. He has continued to fight the Catholich Church in Spain for such measures as the elimination of Catholic signs from public schools or the implementation of a new academic curriculum for teenagers with a new subject called Education for the Citizenry (Educacion para la Ciudadania) that has caused concern among Spanish conservatives. His increased popularity in the Basque Country and Catalonia among soft nationalists helped him win this year’s election. In the Basque Country and Catalonia the Socialists won in each province (three in the Basque Country and four in Catalonia). Zapatero’s support was also particularly strong among 18-29 year-olds, where polls forecast a 2:1 vote ratio in favor of Zapatero.

He is a soft politician with hardcore ideological principles that make him more of an ideologue than a pragmatist. He improvises and somewhat flip flops, but is able to deliver a final, robust, well-constructed message in debates and opinion exchanges. His determination to maintain his grandfather’s legacy has led him to implement appropriate measures such as the elimination of Franco statues from Spanish cities and remove Franco’s lieutenants’ names from Spanish streets named after them, but has made him gone too far too soon with the intended implementation of the Law for Historic Memory (Ley de Memoria Historica) that ought to be more widely consensuated. In the international arena he has performed worse than his predecessor both in Europe and Latin America, and his communication with the United States has been inexistent, which is likely to change with the election of Barack Obama. He is liked by the increasing immigrant population in Spain, which now stands at roughly 10% of the 45 million Spaniards.

SOURCES: Oscar Campillo, Zapatero Presidente a la Primera, La Esfera de los Libros 2004