Spain kicked off its election campaign amid the highest-level security. The Spanish interior minister has warned that the Basque separatist group ETA could mount a deadly attack in the run-up to next month's vote.
Spain went on maximum terror alert on Thursday ahead of the start of official campaigning for what is shaping up to be the most fiercely contested legislative election in decades.
The interior ministry said the alert would provide for a "total mobilisation of forces and state security corps" to monitor and protect party headquarters, election meetings, public transport, shopping centres and sporting events.
Campaigning for the March 9 general election was set to kick off at midnight.
Spain, which has three security levels, had previously been on level two "medium" alert, over fears of a possible attack by the armed separatist group ETA which called off a 15-month ceasefire in June 2006.
"We believe ETA will try to kill before the elections," Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told public television TVE on Wednesday night.
Spanish authorities have detained scores of suspected ETA members and say they have foiled a series of attacks by the outfit in recent months.
The outcome of the last general election held on March 14, 2004 was altered by the early morning bombing of packed commuter trains in Madrid three days earlier by Islamic militants which killed 191 people and wounded 1,800 others.
A surprise Socialist victory was partly attributed to anger on the part of leftist voters over the perception that the conservative government in power had tried to cover up evidence that Islamic radicals were behind the bombings.
There was also anger over Spain's involvement in the US-led Iraq war and the election was marked by a higher-than-average turnout, especially by young voters.
This time around, Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero finds himself on the defensive over a slowing economy, with polls suggesting a a tough fight to secure a second term in office with his lead slipping.
His Socialists have the support of 40.2 percent of voters compared with 38.7 percent for the main opposition Popular Party (PP), a survey of 18,221 voters released last week by the Centre for Sociological Investigation found.
Under most of Zapatero's four-year term, Spain continued its decade-long growth spurt but recent data show both unemployment and inflation are on the rise as the global credit crunch takes its toll on the country's credit-fueled expansion.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, on Thursday cut its forecast for Spanish economic growth in 2008 to 2.7 percent from 3.0 percent previously.
The Popular Party accuses the Socialists of failing to take steps to avoid a slowdown.
"If you do nothing, you end up getting gored by the bull," said Manuel Pizarro, a former chairman of power firm Endesa who was drafted by the Popular Party last month to be their economic spokesman.
Pizarro, who is expected to be nominated economy minister if the Popular Party wins the election, will face Economy Minister Pedro Solbes in a televised debate on Thursday night.
Zapatero predicts the economy will continue to grow above 3.0 percent over the coming years and argues that Spain's healthy budget surplus -- one of only a handful in the 27-nation EU -- means the country is well equipped to deal with a global economic slowdown.
Socialist Party Secretary Jose Blanco urged supporters to turn out heavily on election day.
"Every citizen who stays home will be a vote in favour of the PP's interests," he told a news conference.
ANV, one of two Basque separatist parties which the Supreme Court earlier this month banned from fielding candidates in the election due to their links to ETA, meanwhile urged its supporters to abstain from voting to "demand independence".
The Socialists also faces criticism over their failed bid to negotiate peace with ETA, which has killed 819 people in its nearly 40 year campaign for an independent Basque homeland.
Last month the Roman Catholic Church joined the PP in condemning the government for its tentative talks with the outfit.
It has also vocally opposed the government's liberal social policies such as fast-track divorce and the legalisation of gay marriage which help make the Socialists popular among younger voters.
Date created : 2008-02-22