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Q & A: Spanish elections

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  • Security forces put on maximum alert at the start of the campaign
  • Polls suggest a narrow victory for the Socialists but not an outright majority
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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- As Spain votes in a general election, CNN's Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman gives his analysis.

Q: Does the Madrid train bombings still case a shadow over election campaigning? Are people fearful it may happen again as a means by which to manipulate events, as happened in 2004? Or do they feel safer now Spain is out of Iraq?

A: The Socialist government, which won an upset victory in 2004 three days after Islamic terrorists killed 191 people in the train bombings, has sharply increased police and intelligence personnel to combat terrorism, and about 300 suspected Islamic extremists have been arrested since the bombings. Many Spaniards may feel safer but the government put security forces on maximum alert at the start of this election campaign two weeks ago on fears of another attack, possibly by the Basque separatist group ETA, which is fighting for Basque independence. And on Friday, two days before the vote, the government blamed ETA for the fatal shooting of a former town councilman from the ruling Socialist party. To some, it's an eerie reminder of four years ago, a very different kind of attack, but one which also may influence the voting on Sunday.

Q: What's at stake in the elections on Sunday?

A: Some 35 million Spaniards are eligible to vote for all 350 members of Parliament. Turnout is expected to be around 70 percent. Four years ago, the Socialist Party won 164 seats, the conservative Popular Party won 148 seats, and nine smaller parties got a combined total of 38 seats.

Q: Who is likely to win?

A: Most opinion polls predict a narrow victory for Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, but they also show he again might win simply a plurality, not an outright majority. But conservative candidate Mariano Rajoy, of the Popular Party, has stayed close in the polls and predicts a surprise on Sunday.

Q: How is Basque separatism playing as an election issue?

A: In the two televised debates between the main candidates, viewed by millions of Spaniards -- more than a third of the potential voters -- Basque separatism was a major topic. The conservative challenger has accused the Socialist Prime Minister of secretly negotiating with the Basque separatist group ETA even after an ETA bomb at Madrid's airport in December 2006 blew apart a fledgling peace process. The Prime Minister denies the accusation that he's soft on terrorism

Q: Given Spain's sometimes fragmented nature (e.g., Basque region, Catalonia) are the national parties truly national?

A: The Socialist Party and the conservative Popular Party are truly national, competing across the country. Each has traditional strongholds -- the Socialists do well in southern Andalusia region and in Catalonia, around Barcelona. The conservatives are strong in the Madrid area and in the region around Valencia, Spain's third-largest city, on the Mediterranean. Other parties competing in the elections, with the possible exception of the Communist-led United Left, effectively do not compete nationally.

Q: How does Spain regard its place in the EU?

A: EU membership for Spain, starting in 1986, has made all the difference. Once one of the poorest countries in Europe, Spain is now among the wealthiest, and many here across the political spectrum attribute that to being in the EU, which brought subsidies and investment to Spain, pushed the companies here to compete more strongly with EU counterparts, and also boosted educational levels. Spaniards are generally pro-EU.

Q: How is immigration playing as a theme?

A: The opposition conservatives have made immigration a top issue in the campaign, calling for a "contract" requiring immigrants to integrate into Spain in order to stay. Many see this aimed at African immigrants, since the numerous colony of Latin American immigrants here already speaks Spanish and shares cultural values. The Socialists and conservatives have bickered during the campaign about how many immigrants their respective governments (current Socialists, former conservatives) successfully gave amnesty and working papers to, and how many they repatriated. The Socialists say they have increased diplomatic contacts and aid to the African countries that are the departure points for many immigrants.

Q: What are the main themes of the election?

A: The economy for many is the top issue. Spain's election comes just as the nation's 14-year economic boom is slowing down. Unemployment is on the rise and construction has slowed down as the real estate bubble bursts. The opposition conservatives have hammered the Socialists on this issue, saying they would be better stewards of the economy. The Socialist Prime Minister says the downturn will not be as deep or prolonged as some predict, and says the government has a budget surplus that will help. Both sides have promised tax relief to Spaniards struggling to make ends meet

Q: Will Spain's foreign policy change as a result?

A: The Socialists have built a foreign policy on three pillars -- strong ties to Spain's European Union partners, then to its Mediterranean neighbors, including those in Africa, and finally to Latin America.. The conservatives, who ruled for eight years ending in 2004, built a strong partnership with the United States, and particularly with the Bush administration, sending troops for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, from which the Socialists withdrew upon winning the elections in 2004.

Q: Why do Spain's elections matter to the rest of the world?

A: Spain is among the world's top tourist destinations, along with the United States and France, and attracts around 50 million visitors a year. In addition, millions of Germans, British and other nationalities have permanent or second homes in Spain, particularly along the coasts, and in Spain's Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean and Canary Islands in the Atlantic. Perched just north of the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain has long been a strategically placed country whose political maneuvers fascinates outsiders. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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