Women lead the way in the new Spanish government

Of Spain's 16 socialist ministers who swore their allegiance to King Juan Carlos yesterday, eight are women. It is Spain's first government with an equal number of men and women, the first in Europe after Sweden.

Of Spain's 16 socialist ministers who swore their allegiance to King Juan Carlos yesterday, eight are women. It is Spain's first government with an equal number of men and women, the first in Europe after Sweden.

The gender parity fulfills an election promise by the new Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who was sworn in on Saturday.

But the female ministers are no makeweight "flower-vase" women, as they say here. They hold high-profile, big-budget portfolios controlling priority policy areas of Mr Zapatero's government. They have spent yearsin senior public positions.

Magdelena Alvarez, at public works, is to expand the high-speed train network from Madrid to Barcelona, north to Valladolid and west to Portugal. The Galician, Elena Espinosa, is the former head of Vigo port authority, and she takes agriculture and fisheries. There, she must put right the Prestige disaster, and haggle over the CAP and EU fishing quotas.

Maria Antonia Trujillo, the former head of public works in the western Extremadura region, is the new housing ministry to tackle the nation's housing crisis. Elena Salgado, experienced in public administration, takes health, and Maria Jesus San Segundo, deputy rector of Valladolid university, has education and science. Carmen Calvo, former culture chief of Andalusia's regional government where she created Malaga's successful Picasso museum, is culture minister.

Cristina Narbona, at environment, returns to the ministry where she was number two under Felipe Gonzalez's socialist government. She must find options for the scrapped Ebro river transfer plan and reconcile demands of rainy north-eastern regions and the parched south.

Other figures likely to become household names are Miguel Angel Moratinos, at Foreign Affairs, a diplomat and former EU envoy to the Middle East, who must rebuild alliances to overcome international discrepancies over Iraq and the future of Europe. He flies to Washington after today's inaugural cabinet meeting to propose formulas for co-operation in Iraq after the troop withdrawal.

Pedro Solbes, at finance, reoccupies his old ministry, after a stint as EU economics commissioner: he is unexciting, non-confrontational, an international guarantee that Spain's finances are in safe hands. Jose Bono at the Defence Ministry is to bring home the troops. A socialist veteran who has won six elections as regional leader of Castilla-Leon with an absolute majority, he was pipped as socialist leader by Mr Zapatero in 2000.

Newcomers to the public eye are Jose Antonio Alonso, Interior Minister, a magistrate and old friend of Mr Zapatero who harangued conservatives mercilessly for supporting President George Bush and for politicising judicial bodies supposed to be independent. Mr Alonso is flanked, at Justice, by Juan Fernandez Lopez Aguilar, a hyperactive Canarian with a law doctorate from Bologna university, who wants to simplify Spain's arcane legal system.

Mr Zapatero's close allies who orchestrated his election victory, Jesus Caldera and Jordi Sevilla, take ministries of labour and social affairs, and public administration respectively. And Jose Montilla, architect of Catalonia's ruling tripartite alliance between socialists, communist-leaning greens and pro-independence nationalists, occupies the key ministry of Industry, Tourism and Trade.

And at Mr Zapatero's right hand, most senior of all, the deputy prime minister who will co-ordinate government activities is the magistrate Teresa Fernandez de la Vega who has a long track record as a legal reformer and feminist.

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