Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero
The Spanish government called general elections for March 9, formally launching Monday what is shaping up as a close race between the ruling Socialists and opposition conservatives.
The Cabinet approved a decree at a special meeting, and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero met later with King Juan Carlos to have the monarch formally sign it.
Zapatero is seeking a second term after being elected in March 2004 elections that ousted a conservative government devastated by the Madrid terror bombings by Muslim extremists. The attack killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Zapatero gave his government a glowing review on the state of the economy, social legislation such as legalization of same-sex marriage and other achievements. He said he will ask voters for another term.
"We have a great country. We are a great country. We deserve the best of futures and we are prepared for it," Zapatero said.
Zapatero had already announced the new election date last month. The formal campaign runs for two weeks before the poll, but the two parties have been campaigning for months.
Polls show the Socialists with a lead of 2-3 points over the conservative Popular Party, but statistically the parties are virtually in a dead heat.
Another poll released Monday by the Instituto Opina also showed them statistically tied.
Despite the close race between the parties, Zapatero leads opposition leader Mariano Rajoy in terms of personal approval rating.
A survey published Jan. 4 in the newspaper El Mundo said Spaniards give him higher marks for leadership, foreign policy, social issues, and others, although they prefer Rajoy for dealing with the armed Basque separatist group ETA and handling the economy.
In its favor, Zapatero's camp points to what it calls a strong economy, trailblazing social reforms such as same-sex marriage and changes that gave more self-rule to semiautonomous regions like Catalonia.
The conservatives are hammering away at Zapatero's failed effort to negotiate peace with ETA, which declared a cease-fire in 2006 only to revert to violence last year after failing to win concessions in talks with the government.
Zapatero said Monday that after an ETA bombing that killed two people at Madrid airport in December 2006, shattering the cease-fire, he authorized further contacts with ETA to explore whether there was any chance of salvaging the truce.
He said international organizations approached ETA. He did not identify who was involved or when the contacts took place.
"The prospects were practically nil because the government had already closed the door on what might reasonably have been a process of dialogue that would lead to the end of [ETA] violence," he said.
Indeed, right after the airport bombing, ETA insisted that the two deaths were unintended and that the truce held but declared the cease-fire formally over in June 2007.
Spain's economy, for more than a decade one of the most vibrant in Europe, is cooling off and inflation is running at more than 4 percent, so the economy is also a big campaign issue.
The conservatives are promising tax cuts for businesses and low-income workers, while the government is pledging to create 1.6 million new jobs if reelected and has already launched a program to provide financial aid to young workers and low-earning families to help them pay their rent. (AP)