Ex-President Zapatero : the fate of the new political man

As a "convinced and proud feminist" José Luis Rodrigues Zapatero opted for feminist strategies and policies as a means of furthering democracy. Liz Cooper suggests his failure to be recognised is because in a patriarchal society, equal rights for women, homosexuals, the old and dependent, are not seen as the stuff of politics

Liz Cooper
6 March 2013
Black and white archive image of 1930s polling station with 4 women lined up to vote.

Women voting for the first time in Spain 1931

To be on the demonstrations which took place in Spain on the three days immediately after the bombing of  rush-hour trains in Madrid and its suburbs on Thursday March 11th  2004, leaving nearly 200 dead and 1500 wounded, was to take part in what can now be seen to be the first wave of an “Indignados” Movement. With the elections due three days later and the Government insisting against all the evidence that the tragedy was the work of the Basque terrorist organization ETA, people were stunned, grieving, confused and angry. They came out in their thousands on to the street with placards and shouts of “¿Quién ha sido?” (Who was it?) and the call “Vote, Vote, Vote” could be heard above the whistles, chanting and clamour of the marches as they took over the centres of towns all over Spain. People were angry and insulted by the enormity of the lies being repeated by Government ministers, when the police had established the probable connection with an Islamic group on the very morning of the bombings. The turnout on the Sunday for the election was 77%, up 8.5% on the previous elections of 2000 with the Socialist Party (PSOE) taking 42.59% of the vote and winning 164 of the 350 seats available.  José Luis Rodrigues Zapatero, the leader of the PSOE became President of Spain.

That he was keen to take feminist issues seriously was underlined by his definition of himself as “a convinced and proud feminist”  It was a surprising statement in a country where for many the term feminism was, and still is, equated with lesbianism. An article in the online philosophy magazine “El Búho”, from the University of Andalucia,  written in 2008, puts Zapatero and Barrack Obama together as two presidents who opted for feminist strategies and policies as a means of furthering democracy in the modern environment.  They write of the feminization of both presidents suggesting that they represent a new political man who can reject male stereotypes of power, strength, domination, confrontation and look for inspiration in the way women in general deal with the world: dialogue, consensus, negotiation, participation. In the first television debate in 2008 between presidential candidates in Spain Zapatero re-stated his case: “the choice is dialogue or confrontation”.

Person wearing charicature costume of Zapatero

Zapatero image in "Las Fallas" Valencia. All images set on fire at the endof the fiesta. Photo: Juan Mayano/Dreamstime.com

It is not currently fashionable to think well of the Zapatero government perhaps due to the fact that the more important measures were those aimed at equal rights for women. Not a sexy issue. He brought in laws to help women threatened and harmed by violent partners, to establish rights for those who cared for dependent family members, 83% of care workers in this area being women; to make abortion available to those women who wanted it, with only minor restrictions. He created a Ministry for Equality, the first ever, set up his first cabinet with a 50.50 split between men and women and appointed a woman as Defence Minister, and later a woman as Minister of Finance, both traditionally seen as jobs for the boys. He successfully pushed a law permitting same sex marriage through parliament in 2005.

The economic crisis has been the undoing of many a social democratic government.  How much of what Zapatero did will survive, as the present Government gets busy dismantling the past eight years, is uncertain. The Dependency Law of 2007 with far reaching proposals on workers rights in the sector, on the rights of the dependent population, on creating employment, was to be introduced over eight years .It was one of the more innovative measures of the Zapatero Government but was in difficulties almost from the start mainly due to autonomous regions having considerable power to delay central government decisions. Since the conservative government came in, along with the cuts considerable damage has been done to the intended provisions of the law.

Plans to amend the abortion law which will destroy the right of the woman to decide are said to be ready for implementation in the Spring. The Minister for Justice, Ruis Gallardon, has said the time limits may be adjusted and the automatic right to abortion in the case of a malformed foetus will be re-examined. The Socialist abortion law made abortions on demand legal up to 14 weeks and up to 22 weeks in the cases of severe threat to the life of the woman, and where the foetus was malformed, following at last in the steps of most of modern Europe.

In opposition the PP challenged the same sex marriage law as being un-constitutional but had to accept the Constitutional Court’s decision that it was within the law. It seems likely the law will remain in force, at least for the moment, possibly because it has been greeted by many other countries as a major step in the development of democratic principles and no doubt because it is not accompanied by a budget.

The law against domestic violence, the “Ley Orgánica 1/2004”,one of the flagships of the Zapatero Government, was designed to bring in many innovative measures to give women under attack in the home access to specialist courts, with trained professional staff providing more effective and faster assistance. The proposals were aimed at breaking the silence, developing expertise in dealing with the issue, bringing in tougher sentences and giving women more support against violent attacks.  By the beginning of 2013 budgets have been cut, and the backlash from men’s groups asserting that most of the official complaints by women are false has become very vocal. Just recently the MP Tony Cantó, (UPyD, a small centre right party) attempted to give credibility in Parliament to such accusations but was forced to withdraw his comments.

The opening up of the past with the Historical Memory Law (2007) was a very risky step taken by Zapatero in a country committed to forgetting.  He was vilified by the right and seen as not having gone far enough by the left. The new law recognized and gave rights to the victims and their descendents of both sides in the Civil War, and amongst other measures, and perhaps most importantly, condemned the Franco regime. The right-wing has not to this day condemned the Franco regime.  The budget associated with the law to assist families to find the bodies of their missing dead relatives, has been withdrawn by this conservative government.

It was during his last term that Zapatero brought the violence perpetrated over nearly 40 years by ETA, the Basque independence movement, to an end. ETA, with over 800 deaths to its name, but weakened and reduced by the socialist government policies to terminate the violence, renounced armed resistance on October 20th 2011, four weeks before the general election. Amongst other measures Zapatero freed state television from Government control, gave 700,000 illegal immigrants the right to social security at work, and brought compulsory catholic religious education in schools to an end, reminding both the church and the right that Spain was a non-confessional state under the Constitution.

In the light of all the above, it is not easy to understand why the electorate, both men and women, now largely see the Zapatero years as a wasted opportunity to do a lot more, at best, or as the worst ever presidency of the modern democratic state, at worst.

On International Women’s Day 2013, will Spanish women be celebrating the Zapatero initiatives? It seems unlikely. Many of his long term measures which included far reaching social changes, particularly for women, are being overturned by the right; neither has he been fully recognised as an innovator by the left.  And there’s the rub: in a patriarchal society, equal rights for women, homosexuals, the old, the dependent and the dead are not seen as the stuff of politics.





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