LUCKY to win power in 2004, and the beneficiary of an unprecedented economic boom, Spain's Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has hardly needed to show strength in adversity. That is all about to change.

The economy is rapidly turning sour, and the Socialist leader's first task will be to mitigate the effects of a sharp slowdown that has already put 300'000 out of a job.

In four years, the slim former provincial law lecturer, long regarded modestly even within his own Socialist party, has re-engineered Spanish society to make what was once one of Europe's most conservative countries one of its most liberal.

He has legalised gay marriage, reduced the role of the Roman Catholic Church in education and reinforced sex equality laws.
But the good times seem to be ending in Spain.
So far, Zapatero's economic policy, based on balanced budgets, has been strait-laced, continuing a boom that has helped ensure a lead in opinion polls over the fractious conservative opposition.

Now, some economists say economic growth could nearly halve this year to 2 percent. House prices, which tripled in 10 years, are falling and inflation has jumped to 4.4 percent.

The prime minister has promised to boost public spending to provide jobs for building workers who lose their jobs, but this strategy could be tested if the global credit crunch drags on.

Zapatero will also face challenges from Spain's regions, notably Catalonia and the Basque Country, whose distinctive cultures were suppressed during the Franco dictatorship, and to which he has given more powers.

The Basque issue provided one of his biggest failures of his first term - an attempt to negotiate a peace deal with the violent separatist group ETA - and he has promised not to repeat the attempt this time round. “His leadership style isn't based on bossing people around, but on seeking consensus,” said Juan Luis Paniagua, a politics professor at Madrid's Complutense University. “But behind that smiling face there is a lot of determination.” In this election campaign, Zapatero depicted himself as the candidate of modernity confronting the pessimistic Catholic traditionalism of the conservative opposition.

But even his own supporters thought the amiable Zapatero lucky to become prime minister in the first place.
Arguably he would never have got so far if a group of Islamists inspired by al Qaeda had not killed 191 people in bomb attacks on Madrid commuter trains just three days before the last election, in March 2004.

Until then, Zapatero had trailed in the polls. But the outgoing conservative government, which had taken Spain into the unpopular Iraq war, blamed the attacks on ETA, unleashing a wave of public indignation that swept the Socialists to power.

Zapatero had surprised many by becoming Socialist leader in 2000 at the age of 39, taking over a party shaken by two successive election defeats at the hands of the conservative Jose Maria Aznar. “He wasn't a strong leader at the beginning. His leadership was questioned within the party itself,” Socialist congressman Antonio Hernando told Reuters, who recalled how Zapatero had been unflatteringly called “Bambi” by his detractors. “As time went by, people started comparing him to the Lion King. True, that's still a cartoon character, but Zapatero ended up winning the party over with his leadership.” Zapatero is married to a music teacher, and keeps their two daughters out of the public eye. He speaks some French but no English, a factor that some say has contributed to a relative lack of engagement with foreign policy.

Zapatero grew up in the northern city of Leon, influenced by the memory of his grandfather, Juan Rodriguez Lozano, an army captain who was shot by General Francisco Franco's troops in 1936 for refusing to take part in the right-wing uprising.

Around the time he became Socialist leader, he said: “For years I saw myself as Captain Lozano's grandson. It gave me an inner strength when I started in the party at the age of 18.”