Zapatero appoints Spain's first cabinet with female majority

Spain's re-elected Socialist Party Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has broken his own record for sexual equality by appointing a predominantly female cabinet for the first time in the country's history.

His nine female ministers not only form a majority in a 17-strong cabinet, which assumes office today, but also occupy heavyweight positions, including for the first time the Defence Ministry.

Carme Chacon, 37, a Catalan, moves from a short stint in charge of the housing in the previous government to control the Defence portfolio, amid mounting concern over the role of Spanish troops in Afghanistan.

Ms Chacon, who is expecting a baby, was a key activist in securing Mr Zapatero's surprise victory as Socialist Party leader in 2000, and is considered a member of his inner circle. In addition to her ministerial duties, she is expected to form a bridge between ruling socialists in Madrid and Catalonia's regional government.

One of Mr Zapatero's most influential ministers, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, consolidates her position as Deputy Prime Minister with increased responsibilities. Other experienced women include Magdalena Alvarez, who continues at Public Works and must solve Catalonia's water crisis; Mercedes Cabrera at Education, and Elena Salgada at Public Administrations, who must settle rivalries between the autonomous regions and Madrid.

Mr Zapatero, who was sworn in as Prime Minister before King Juan Carlos on Saturday, made history four years ago by appointing an equal number of men and women as ministers. This time around he has also underlined his commitment to gender equality by giving women the numerical edge in the cabinet and also creating an Equality Ministry. This is to be headed by Spain's youngest ever minister, Bibiana Aido, 31, a former regional MP for Andalusia and ex-director of the region's Flamenco Agency.

However, the healthy female quota in the cabinet has not gone down well with everyone. Mr Zapatero's choices were promptly criticised in barely veiled sexist terms by a conservative commentator who referred contemptuously in yesterday's ABC newspaper to "ZP's battalion of inexperienced seamstresses".

Male heavyweights remain: the veteran Pedro Solbes at Economy; Miguel Angel Moratinos at Foreign Affairs; and as Interior Minister, the old socialist fox Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, who has earned the confidence of Basque politicians of all stripes in countering armed Eta separatists.

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