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Spain goes to polls after suspected ETA killing

Latest update : 2008-03-09

Two days after the assassination of a former Socialist councillor, Spain goes to the polls Sunday to elect a new parliament. Turnout was 61.09% by 6:00 pm, compared to 63.02% in the last election in 2004.

Spaniards voted Sunday in high numbers in general elections with the ruling Socialists tipped to win a new mandate to pursue sweeping social reforms after a campaign cut short by the murder of a former politician.
The last opinion polls published in Spain on Monday gave Prime Minister Jose Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist Party a lead of about four percentage points over the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP) led by Mariano Rajoy.
If confirmed, the Socialists would most likely once again fall short of an absolute majority and would have to forge uncomfortable alliances with smaller regional nationalist parties to pass legislation.
As of 6:00 pm (1700 GMT), turnout was 61.09 percent, about two percentage points lower than at the same time in general elections four years ago but far higher than in a vote in 2000, the government said.
Analysts say a high turnout is crucial for Zapatero's re-election chances as Socialists supporters are seen as more prone to apathy than those of the PP.
The record turnout in March 2004 helped Zapatero, now 47, to score a surprise win over Rajoy, 52, three days after train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people.
Voters then were infuriated at the conservative government's insistence that ETA was to blame, even though evidence pointed to Islamic extremists angered by Madrid's role in the Iraq war.
After the election, Zapatero responded to popular opinion and withdrew the country's troops from Iraq.
Election campaigning was again suspended this time around, after a former municipal legislator, Isaias Carrasco, a Socialist, was shot dead Friday in the northern Basque region.
There have been no claims of responsibility, but police said it bore the hallmark of the Basque separatist group ETA, which has killed over 800 people in its nearly 40-year campaign for an independent homeland.
Political analysts said they doubted the attack would significantly influence the election outcome.
But Spaniards on Saturday received an emotional plea to turn out and vote from Carrasco's daughter, as hundreds attended his funeral.
Pictures of a grief-stricken Sandra Carrasco made the front pages of almost all Spanish newspapers on Sunday, and the conservative press warned that it could help the Socialists.
"The images ... have provoked a natural feeling of sympathy for the Socialists and Zapatero," the centre-right El Mundo said in an editorial.
The centre-left El Pais commented: "Some are already beginning to put out the idea that a bigger Socialist win than predicted by the opinion polls will be due to the killing of Isaias Carrasco."
After casting his ballot, Rajoy hinted at frustration over the extensive media coverage of the killing.
"My only hope right now is that things happen the way they should, that the only news is that the elections took place, that the winner was the one chosen by all the Spanish people," he said.
During his four years in power, Zapatero has brought in sweeping social reforms, including same-sex marriage, fast-track divorce, laws to promote gender equality and an amnesty for undocumented workers.
Many of the measures have incensed leaders of the Roman Catholic Church but the PP has tried to steer clear of a debate on the reforms, concerned that it would merely mobilize leftist voters.
It has focused instead on rising unemployment and concerns over a sharp rise in immigration which appears to have struck a cord with working class voters.
"The competition in the job market is getting more and more stiff because of immigrants who are less well paid," said 36-year-old railway worker Jose Carlos Lopez-Ruiz after he voted for the PP in the immigrant-heavy Madrid suburb of Alcala de Henares.
Rajoy, a former education and interior minister, has also accused the government of being soft on terrorism.
Zapatero launched a dialogue with ETA in June 2006, three months after it declared a "permanent" ceasefire, but the talks ended when the organisation staged a bomb attack that killed two people at the car park at Madrid's airport in December of that year.
After ETA officially called off its ceasefire in June 2007, the authorities have adopted a hard line, arresting dozens of members of the group and its banned political wing Batasuna.

Date created : 2008-03-09