How the quiet man of Spanish politics finally made his voice heard above the noise of war

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The Independent Online

José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is the quiet man of Spanish politics. The mild-mannered lawyer did not seek to exploit the train bombings that shook Madrid three days before the election, but he benefited when the voters decided to punish the Government for its handling of the bombing aftermath.

José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is the quiet man of Spanish politics. The mild-mannered lawyer did not seek to exploit the train bombings that shook Madrid three days before the election, but he benefited when the voters decided to punish the Government for its handling of the bombing aftermath.

Mr Zapatero, 43, comes from a lower middle-class family of left-wing republican views from the Castilian town of Valladolid. His grandfather, a captain in Spain's Republican army, was shot by Franco's forces in 1936 for loyalty to the elected republic. The family tragedy marked his childhood in the dying years of the dictatorship.

He was 16 when he attended his first socialist meeting in August 1976, before parties were legalised following the death of the dictator, and he was inspired by the charismatic leader, Felipe Gonzalez. He joined at age 18 and, although he trained as a lawyer, only ever worked for the party. He still keeps a portrait of Gonzalez in his office.

At 26 he was Spain's youngest MP, and head of the party in the city of Leon. He established a reputation for conciliating warring factions and as a brilliant parliamentary speaker. Quietly he built around him a new generation of Socialists, poised to inject fresh blood into a party drained of ideas, tainted with scandal.

Following Mr Aznar's landslide victory in 2000, Mr Zapatero galvanised his sagging party. "I'm going to lead this party once more to victory and the biggest one in its history," he promised in July 2000. "We need change, tranquil change. Our hope is for victory in 2004." His words were prophetic, but few believed them.

Then José Maria Aznar's government mishandled the Prestige oil-tanker disaster, and dragged Spain into an unpopular war in Iraq. It behaved heartlessly to relatives of soldiers killed when a clapped-out transport plane plunged into Turkish mountains, and to those seeking to recover loved ones shot and flung into ditches by Franco's troops in the Civil War.

But Mr Zapatero failed to go for the kill. He persisted in seeking consensus, to the despair of many who thought he was letting the government off the hook.

Following the election, Mr Zapatero is expected to appoint a centrist cabinet with a well-known free marketeer, Miguel Sebastian, as economy minister. The EU's former Middle East envoy, Miguel Angel Moratinos, is expected to be foreign minister. Mr Zapatero intends Mr Sebastian to head a new "super" ministry, which will merge the current economy and finance ministries.

Mr Zapatero, a conciliatory figure seeking "gentle change" towards the political centre in the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, has said he will not form a coalition government, leaving him free to appoint the ministers he chooses. He has made it clear that as well as pulling out the 1,300 Spanish troops from Iraq, he will continue his conservative predecessor's fight against terrorism. "My most immediate priority is to beat all forms of terrorism," he said in his victory speech.

Mr Zapatero has also marked a distance from a pervasive "first-ladyism" that characterised Mr Aznar's government, comparable to that of Mr Blair. Unlike Ana Botella, Mr Aznar's wife, who was always at her husband's side to share the applause of victory, Mr Zapatero's wife Sonsoles, was on Sunday night nowhere to be seen.

In Sunday's election the Socialists defeated the ruling Popular Party, jumping from 125 seats to 164 in the 350-member Congress of Deputies. The conservatives fell from 183 to 148.

Pre-election polls had projected the Popular Party, led by Mariano Rajoy, would win comfortably, and even some exit polls on Sunday showed it might win. But when the ballots were tallied, the Socialists netted 10.9 million to the PP's 9.6 million. Turnout was 77 per cent.

Mr Zapatero's triumph, three days after the Madrid train bombings killed 200 people and injured 1,500, came as he ran for the first time for prime minister against an entrenched government and won. "That broke a lot of precedents," party campaign manager José Blanco said yesterday.

Cynics are already speculating on how long it will take for Mr Zapatero's spirit of tolerance and dialogue to be expunged by pragmatic realpolitik. But for now, the mood is expressed by youngsters who gathered outside party headquarters on Sunday: "Don't fail us!" they called.

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