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Spain Today

Politics

The results of regional and local elections in Spain in 2011 were significant: the socialist party, the PSOE—in power since 2004—was handed widespread defeats, giving the opposition center-right Partido Popular (PP) outright majorities in 8 of the 13 regions that were up for grabs.

Center-right parties won control of all of Spain's largest cities, including Barcelona, which had been PSOE-controlled since 1979. In the popular vote, the PP won by 38% to 28% nationwide, giving it a parliamentary majority and installing party leader Mariano Rajoy as prime minister.

The electorate soured on the austerity measures the PSOE had adopted to cope with the country's considerable economic problems—not the least of them the highest unemployment rate in the euro zone—but under Prime Minister Rajoy the government has taken some of those measures even further: it raised income taxes, introduced labor reforms that make it easier for employers to fire workers, weakened the system of collective bargaining (thus lowering wages), and reduced both the numbers and salaries of public-sector employees. The months following the election turned the spotlight on the indignados—the “indignant ones”—who gathered in Occupy-style protests against the cutbacks in major cities nationwide; demonstrations continued sporadically through much of 2013.

An important element of PP policy is its opposition to any further devolution of powers to Spain’s autonomous regions, which are responsible for their own education, welfare, and health care budgets—and where chronic borrowing and overspending have contributed significantly to the nation’s economic crises. Rajoy’s determined centralism has only added fuel to separatist sentiments, especially in Catalonia, where parties advocating outright independence won the regional elections in late 2012. In March 2013, the regional parliament voted in favor of an independence referendum.

The Economy

The introduction of the euro in January 2002 brought about a major change in Spain's economy, as shopkeepers, hoteliers, restaurateurs, and real estate agents all rounded prices up in an attempt to make the most of the changeover from the old currency, and the country became markedly more expensive. This did little to harm Spain's immense tourism machine, at least until the recession began to take its toll in 2009. A weaker euro brought the hospitality industry bouncing back in 2011 and 2012; this reflected, in some measure, a return on the government's 1.5-billion-euro loan to "de-seasonalize" the industry (reducing its dependence on the summer beach-bound holiday market) and expand both the eco-friendly and the upscale cultural components of the Spanish travel experience. With the country still mired in recession (the economy shrank by some 1.7% in 2012), tourism remains a bright spot: Spain's 57 million-plus visitors contribute around 12% annually to the country's GDP.

Religion

The state-funded Catholic Church, closely tied to the right-wing PP, and with the national Cadena Cope radio station as its voice, continues to hold considerable social and political influence in Spain, with members of secretive groups such as Opus Dei and the Legionarios de Cristo holding key government and industry positions.

Despite the church's influence, at street level Spain has become a secular country, as demonstrated by the fact that 70% of Spaniards supported the decidedly un-Catholic 2005 law allowing gay marriage. And although more than 75% of the population claims to be Catholic—attendance at Mass has been bolstered over the last decade by strongly Catholic South American and Eastern European immigrants—less than 20% go to church on a regular basis.

More than 1 million Muslims reside in Spain, making Islam the country's second-largest religion.

The Arts

Spain's devotion to the arts is clearly shown by the attention, both national and international, paid to its annual Principe de Asturias prize, where Prince Felipe hands out accolades to international high achievers such as Riccardo Muti and Leonard Cohen, and to homegrown talent such as the architect-sculptor Santiago Calatrava, who designed the World Trade Center PATH station at Ground Zero in New York.

Film is without a doubt at the forefront of the Spanish arts scene. Acclaimed director Pedro Almodóvar notched another triumph in 2011 with his dark melodramatic fantasy The Skin I Live In, starring Spanish leading man Antonio Banderas. Penelope Cruz—fresh from the 2011 On Stranger Tides, the fourth in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise—teamed up again with Woody Allen for the 2012 comedy To Rome with Love. Javier Bardem (the twisted contract killer in No Country for Old Men) expanded his repertoire of villains as the baddy in the James Bond movie Skyfall in 2012.

In contrast, Spanish music continues to be a rather local affair, though the summer festival scene, including the Festival Internacional de Benicàssim and WOMAD (World of Music and Dance), serves up top names to revelers who come from all over Europe to soak up music in the sun.

While authors such as Miguel Delibes, Rosa Montero, and Maruja Torres flourish in Spain, few break onto the international scene, with the exception of Arturo Pérez Reverte, whose books include Captain Alatriste and The Fencing Master, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, author of the acclaimed Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and Prisoner of Heaven. Spain's contribution to the fine arts is still dominated by three names: the Majorcan-born artist Miquel Barceló; the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida, who died in 2002; and the Catalan abstract painter Antoni Tapies, who died in 2012.

Sports

With Real Madrid and FC Barcelona firmly established as international brands, and La Liga recognized as one of the world's most exciting leagues, soccer remains the nation's favorite sport. The national soccer team, known as La Roja ("The Red One"), is the only team in the world to have won the European Cup twice and the World Cup in succession. After fútbol, what rivets the Spanish fan's attention are cycling, tennis, and basketball. Alberto Contador, who won the 2009 Tour de France; Rafael Nadal, the first tennis player to hold Grand Slam titles on clay, grass, and hard court; and brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, who play for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Memphis Grizzlies respectively, are national heroes.

Updated: 03-2014

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