By Jason Webb
MADRID, Jan 16 (Reuters) - The Spanish prime minister’s greatest political gamble may have failed when an ETA bomb shattered peace efforts, but a strong economy, popular social policy and a struggling opposition may secure his hold on power.
Opposition Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy called Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero a frivolous, lightweight conman during a speech on Monday in which he restated opposition to any talks with the Basque separatist group ETA.
Zapatero pleaded in a parliamentary debate for cross-party consensus on dealing with separatist guerrillas and won support from all except the PP. The debate may have bruised the prime minister, but it also appeared to portray an isolated PP.
"Zapatero has taken a political hit, and a couple of polls after the bombing showed a loss of votes, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to damage him permanently," said Juan Aviles, contemporary history professor at Madrid’s Open University.
Zapatero staked much political capital on negotiating an end to ETA’s violent struggle for Basque independence. He was forced to suspend the peace process after the Dec. 30 bomb which wrecked a Madrid airport carpark, killing two people.
Many voters, however, will be put off by the harsh and personal tone adopted by Rajoy in criticizing Zapatero, analysts said.
"The PP’s strategy is very pleasing to its millions of core voters but is making it difficult for it to attract anyone else," Aviles said.
Julian Santamaria, political science professor at Madrid’s Complutense University, broadly agreed.
"It was a speech without a single positive suggestion. Spaniards won’t react well to that speech," he said.
OPPOSITION GAINS AFTER BOMB
Zapatero has not ruled out speaking again to the Basque guerrillas, who have killed more than 800 people in four decades of armed struggle for independence of the ancient lands of the Basque people, which straddle parts of Spain and France.
With Spanish elections due by 2008, one opinion poll shortly after the violent end to ETA’s cease fire showed the PP pulling slightly ahead of the Socialists for the first time since October 2005, with 40.7 percent support.
But the Socialists have much better relations with the nationalist parties in Spain’s disparate regions, particularly the Basque Country and Catalonia, where the PP’s unbending insistance on a unified nation has been poorly received.
This would make it difficult for the PP to form a coalition if it won more votes than the Socialists but fell short of the electoral earthquake it would need to win a clear majority.
The PP has still to shake off the trauma of its shock election defeat in March 2004, after voters reacted badly to the then conservative government’s attempt to blame Islamist train bombings in Madrid on ETA, analysts believe.
Few observers had expected Zapatero, a weak parliamentary performer, to win the elections, but he has since governed boldly on divisive social issues, legalising gay marriage and reducing the influence of the Catholic Church.
He inherited Spain’s decade-long economic boom, which shows no sign of ending just yet, despite concern among some economists about personal debt and high house prices.
"Zapatero isn’t a good orator, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good politician," Santamaria said.