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Insufficient answers

Government and opposition team up to stifle debate on reducing the welfare state

Spanish voters deserve an explanation from their elected representatives of the economic reforms being pushed through by the government. Over the last year, this country has seen pensions frozen, labor reform make it easier to sack people, and reforms that will see a minimum 12-percent cut in pension payments when we are able to retire at the age of 67. At the same time, the government has been taking measures to try to create more jobs. But both the Socialist Party and the opposition Popular Party have avoided serious discussion of the measures and their likely impact, instead opting to slug it out over unemployment statistics. Meanwhile, few people have much of an idea why a Socialist Party government has decided to abandon many of its main tenets.

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has appeared before Congress several times to make some attempt at outlining his government's social policy. That said, his explanation for the shift can be summed up in two soundbites: "the more vigorous and deeper the reforms to improve competitiveness, the greater the possibility of consolidating and improving the welfare state," the premier said recently. He has also said that the agreement between unions, employers, and the government "has sent out a message that the public accounts are solvent." Both are true, but the first requires reasons that the prime minister hasn't provided, and that the PP refuses to accept.

The financial crisis and the ensuing recession, for which Zapatero is not to blame, but which he wasted much time recognizing and responding to, has seen this country lose much of its wealth and has manifested itself in the form of a very real fall in income. The situation is all the more delicate in a country with a weak tax base that must look to the international markets to borrow money, thus exposing itself to speculators.

Governments rarely implement the social policy they would like, instead having to work within their means. However, the prime minister could have outlined the consequences of the financial and property crash, explaining to the electorate the magnitude of the loss of revenue. Instead, he decided to focus on past achievements, while projecting a future filled with good intentions.

Mariano Rajoy, the PP leader, has criticized the government cuts, perhaps in a bid to reach out to the labor unions, but forgetting in the process that if he is elected to office, he will have to make cuts. In other words, his social policy will be remarkably similar to that of the current government: job creation, education and health. The leader of the opposition seems unable to go beyond generalizations: "There is no better social policy than creating work," he said recently. Agreed. All that remains is to know how he intends to create jobs. We can only hope it isn't by creating another property boom.