An insubstantial PM

The Wall Street Journal dubbed José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero the “accidental” prime minister when he won the March 2004 general election, echoing a common perception that the Socialists wouldn’t have won it if it hadn’t been for the train bombings three days earlier, allegedly carried out by militant Islamists to protest the presence of a Spanish peace-keeping force in Iraq. A majority of Spaniards were against sending troops to Iraq, a sentiment the Socialist Party played on to organise almost weekly demonstrations in the streets of the country’s major cities in the months leading up to the election – with Zapatero in the front line, accompanied by film stars, trade unionists, gay leaders and masses of young people. The Socialists continued their anti-war efforts right up to the day before the election – when by law all political activity is banned. Images of “anti-war” protesters outside the local offices of the then ruling Partido Popular in cities and towns across the country were broadcast relentlessly by the television stations backing the Socialists – that is, nearly all of them. Meanwhile, the current Interior Ministry Adolfo Perez Rubalcabas – who was then Zapatero’s adviser on election tactics – put on his most saintly airs to tell reporters that they weren’t political demonstrations, but anti-war ones. The Aznar government accused Rubalcabas of having started them by texting local Socialist leaders all over the country, instructing them to get the anti-war protesters out. He denied it and when the government said “prove your innocence, let the police look at the calls made on your mobile”, he replied “that would be an invasion of my right to privacy”. So we ended up with the accidental prime minister. But the Wall Street Journal got the wrong adjective – the right one is insubstantial. Zapatero might be top dog here but he’s a nonentity abroad. Nothing underlined this more than his recent visit to the UN. Spanish television naturally played up his presence in New York, but it might have been better if they hadn’t. The Spanish cameramen had to stick to close-ups when Zapatero gave a press conference to disguise the fact that few non-Spanish journalists bothered to attend. But the worst moment was when Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva walked right past a grinning Zapatero – who was obviously expecting the old Latin kiss-and-hug routine – and went up to Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, who was standing just in front of the PM, and kissed and hugged her. Lula then turned away. He wasn’t giving the Zapatero the cold shoulder – he just hadn’t seen him. Seconds later, Spain’s state television TVE1 showed Zapatero crossing the road in front of the UN building on his way back to his hotel. The shot was supposed to get across just how unassuming and modest the PM is – and to paraphrase Churchill “he has much to modest about” – but all it did was underline the fact that Zapatero is very much of a loner at international meetings. While other world leaders are slapping each other’s back before getting engaged in earnest conversation, Zapatero more often than not is seen standing apart with a “what am I doing here” expression on his face. So he must have been delighted when New York Times columnist Roger Cohen asked him for an interview. In the write-up which appeared last week under the title Hasta la Vista, Baby, Mr Cohen described Zapatero as “a wry, polished, suave politician – a socialist with that European socialist habit of being amused by almost everything and committed to almost nothing.” He then mentioned that one of the first things Zapatero did when he was elected in 2004 was to withdraw the Spanish peace-keeping troops from Iraq. Zapatero told Mr Cohen that when he told Bush about this decision, the latter said: “O.K., all right, goodbye.” But, Zapatero said, he had a “certain consideration” for Bush, because “I recognize that my electoral success has been influenced by his governing style.” In other words, Mr Cohen wrote, Bush was so unpopular in Spain that he helped Zapatero win in 2004 and 2008. Mr Cohen then went to take a swipe at the European left: “Zapatero reminds me of why, raised in Europe, I chose to become an American. Despite Spain’s dictatorial past under Franco, Zapatero seemed to me mealy-mouthed about totalitarianism and tyranny. Moral relativism oozed from his lawyerly repartee. He illustrates why Orwell felt compelled to say: it’s not enough to be antifascist; you must also be in principle anti-totalitarian. The European left has often had a hard time with this notion.” The whole interview is too long to reproduce here but the views expressed by Zapatero in it – on NATO (what use is it), and Russia (not to be provoked at any cost), among other things – once more underlined just how lightweight and insubstantial the PM is.


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