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Spanish elections expected to be close

Latest update : 2008-03-07

In Spain, Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero (left) and Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy (right) prepare for the March 9 parliamentary elections, expected to be the closest in decades.

MADRID, March 7 (Reuters) - When Spanish bishops advised
Catholics on how to vote in next Sunday's election, Spaniards
were reminded of the Church's one-time power, but also of how
that power has waned.

The advice -- seen as a direct swipe at the policies of the
ruling Socialists -- outraged some and rekindled memories of the
Church's powerful role during the years of General Francisco
Franco's dictatorship after the 1936-39 civil war.

But others, like the hundreds of thousands who took part in
a rally in favour of the traditional family in December,
welcomed the bishops' criticism of Socialist policies like the
legalisation of gay marriage and laws to make divorce easier.

This divide may surface in Sunday's election, and could be
important if the vote is tight. Then, social questions -- like
gay marriage, abortion and divorce -- could come to the fore
alongside the main campaigning issue, the economy.

In the last surveys published before a pre-election ban on
opinion polls came into force, the traditionally Catholic
opposition Popular Party (PP) lagged the Socialists by about 4
percentage points.

And looking beyond Sunday, those most concerned by the
issues raised in the Church's statement are watching for any
signs of backtracking in Spain's liberal society.

"I'm not left-wing at all, really, but I'm worried that if
the government changes, we could take a step back on social
changes if people like the Church get more influence," said Ivan
Diaz, a gay man living in Madrid.

Diaz married Antonio Tenorio last year after the Socialist
government legalised gay marriage in a move that outraged
conservative Spaniards and the Catholic Church. Several thousand
gay couples have been married so far.

"When I was growing up, the fact that I was gay was a
disaster for a lot of people in my family but now things are
different," said Tenorio who moved to Madrid to escape prejudice
in his home town.

A primary school teacher, Tenorio illustrates how Spain has
evolved from a traditional and staunchly Catholic country since
democracy returned after Franco's death in 1975.



According to a recent poll in right-wing newspaper El Mundo,
34 percent of people thought the Church's pre-election note
would benefit the PP. But nearly 26 percent thought it would be
bad for Mariano Rajoy's party, and 27 percent thought it would
have no effect.

Spain was long one of Europe's most conservative countries
but now church attendance has fallen steeply, divorce rates are
among the highest in the European Union, and families are
shrinking due to one of the world's lowest birthrates.

Some think the church-state spat could push secular voters
towards the Socialist camp in a country that that has some of
the most liberal social attitudes in Europe. It was young,
liberal voters who gave Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez
Zapatero a surprise victory in 2004.

Even the PP, whose supporters are traditionally conservative
and faithful voters, has steered clear of allying itself with
the Church's stance -- a fact that illustrates the extraordinary
sensitivity of the church-state debate and the PP's fears that
any pledge to backtrack could cost it votes.

Zapatero has said extremists in the Catholic Church would
have too much power if the PP won the election.

That might not annoy everyone. Some Spaniards are
uncomfortable with the pace of change and this anxiety has
merged with fears about rising crime because of unemployment to
create a demand for more conservative policies.

Hundreds of thousands turned out at a December rally in
Madrid to hear bishops slam laws on divorce and abortion.

"Yes, I'm worried about the economy but I can't see that a
change of government would make much difference there," said
Ignacio Plaza, who runs a fruit and vegetable stall in Madrid.

"This country is out of control," said Plaza. "The
immigrants are becoming a real problem and I don't like abortion
or this gay marriage thing. That's not a real marriage." He was
likely to vote for Rajoy, he said.



A PP government would probably tighten the workings of the
abortion law, for example, and some Spaniards feel the
atmosphere would undergo a fundamental shift if the party won.

"If Rajoy wins, I don't think he would dare change the gay
marriage law but they will look at things like abortion and
those that are against change will feel supported," said Diaz.

In its statement on voting, the Church urged Spaniards not
to vote for parties that negotiate with Basque separatists ETA
-- an apparent jibe at the Socialists who held failed peace
talks in 2006.

It also spoke out against the legalisation of gay marriage
and the reduced importance of religion in the school curriculum,
both reforms carried out by the Socialists.

The election this week of the hardline Cardinal Antonio
Maria Rouco Varela, Archbishop of Madrid, as chairman of of the
Spanish Bishops' Conference is likely to be interpreted as a
move towards an even more conservative stance.

"The Church made its position pretty clear in that note,"
says Pepe Villaverde, who runs a newspaper kiosk in Madrid's
Salamanca district. "I don't really care what they say, but in
Spain there are still a lot of people who do."

"I don't want to even think about a Spain where the bishops
have more say," says Tenorio. "I know there are people out there
who want that but we have to move forward, don't we?"

Date created : 2008-03-07