Spanish PM urges unity in face of conservative gains

Spain's elections have produced two big political forces each with conflicting visions of the world, presenting the Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, with an uneasy ride as he faces the problems of a flagging economy, a resurgent terrorist threat and a militant Catholic Church.

His victorious Socialists face a conservative opposition that also strengthened its vote as smaller parties crumpled. Confronted by sharply defined alternatives of right and left, Spaniards defied a sustained conservative onslaught to back Mr Zapatero with the largest vote the Socialists have ever received, enabling him to govern for another four years.

Yesterday he displayed all his famed charm and optimism as he braced the country for rough times. "With more votes and more seats, we have to govern better, with more humility, and strengthen our capacity for dialogue," a smiling Mr Zapatero said. He hoped for "a new era without tension or confrontation".

Voters gave Mr Zapatero a clear mandate to continue his programme of progressive social reform, promising to govern for the poor, women and the young, adding to his laws on gay marriage, sexual equality and easier divorce. He won 169 seats, five more than last time. But without the absolute majority of 176, he lacks the freedom of action he craved.

Dialogue with the opposition Popular Party might be tricky. This was the second successive defeat for the conservative PP led by Mariano Rajoy, barely redeemed by an increase in seats, up five to 153. Mr Rajoy's weary "adios" on the balcony of party headquarters signalled he may soon be on the way out. Rivals are reportedly jostling to replace him. Those angling to step into his shoes seem unsympathetic to the dialogue that the Socialist leader seeks, even though the PP is expected to undergo a profound rethink.

Mr Zapatero still needs support from smaller parties. "There are a number of parties we can speak to," he said yesterday. "Obviously we're going to be talking to all of them." But he dismissed as "premature" talk of possible pacts. With a reinforced parliamentary position he may opt for informal ad hoc deals.

Both the Basque Nationalist Party and the Catalan Convergence and Union, who won six and 11 seats each, want a share in government. Each represents a moderate nationalism compatible with Mr Zapatero's vision of Spain as a plurality of national identities. Fringe parties urging Catalan or Basque independence crumbled, silencing conservative predictions that Spain was in the process of breaking up.

Combating Eta terrorism has returned as a top priority, following the murder on Friday of a Socialist former councillor, an attack that threw the campaign into turmoil and propelled large numbers of voters to the polls. Mr Zapatero is expected to stick to the hard line against Eta armed separatists that he adopted after his high-risk attempt to resolve the Basque conflict by talks collapsed. But he says he doesn't regret taking the risk. Mr Zapatero is renowned for taking risks, and for scenting victory. He opted to lead the Socialists in 2000 as an outsider without support among party barons, and restored optimism to a party crushed by a second election defeat. He predicted victory in 2004 long before the 11 March train bombings propelled voters in his favour. And two weeks ago, neck and neck with the PP, he dispelled Socialists' gloom by promising that all would be well.