Princeton Weekly Bulletin   January 14, 2008, Vol. 97, No. 13   prev   next   current

Highlights from Pettit’s review of the Zapatero government

A related story describes the history of Philip Pettit’s association with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero. Below is the assessment of Pettit’s review of the Zapatero government in regard to the principles outlined in Pettit’s book “Republicanism.”

In preparing his report on Zapatero’s government, Pettit first appraised actions taken by Zapatero to guard against private domination — that is, the domination exerted over individuals or groups of people by more powerful individuals or groups. The major areas of action are listed below.


From the perspective of non-domination, the status of women is of primary importance. During one meeting with Pettit, Zapatero observed that women are “the most dominated people on earth,” and his initiatives on behalf of women have been extensive. Pettit noted that very early on, Zapatero introduced legislation against domestic abuse. He proposed a law whereby 40 percent of the candidates who stand for elections for publicly financed parties must be women and he has been putting incentives in place for corporations to employ women on equal terms with men and to give women a minimum level of representation on corporate boards. His own cabinet is 50 percent women.

“I am not sure about the wisdom of quotas,” said Pettit, “but I have to say that this is in line with republicanism.” 

Gay marriage

Zapatero introduced legislation in favor of gay marriage. “Famously,” said Pettit, “Zapatero asked his parliament, ‘Is there any member of this house who can look someone else in the eye who is gay and say you are not deserving of equal treatment before the law?’” 


Zapatero established a law under which people who are dependent, for example because of a disability, are entitled to a state pension. Pettit stresses in “Republicanism” that while it is important that the state support people who are dependent, it is equally important that the support is extended “so that you don’t have to persuade someone to be nice to you in order to receive fair treatment.” To protect dependents, Zapatero established a board that estimates for each person based on their disability what they are entitled to, as a right. Equally, people who are required to stay at home to look after the disabled are entitled to a dependency salary. 


Pettit praised Zapatero’s treatment of migrants, 700,000 of whom were granted amnesty in the first year of his government. “This was a very brave decision that has been good for Spain,” said Pettit. “These people had not been paying taxes, and now the country benefits financially.” Backing up these efforts, Zapatero is working to establish relationships with, and provide aid to, the mostly African countries from which many migrants come. 


Regarding the workplace, Zapatero has acted in ways that fit with the goals of republicanism. Pettit noted that Zapatero increased the minimum wage. He has taken steps to address the vulnerability of workers on temporary contracts — as much as a quarter of Spain’s work force — making it harder for employers to fire at will and easier for workers to get mortgages. To make such changes palatable to the business community, Pettit said Zapatero reduced the corporation tax paid to government from 35 to 30 percent, in return for an improvement in the terms of employment. 

The second area Pettit examined in his report was how far Zapatero’s government had made itself “more accountable and therefore less arbitrary in its decisions, such as favoring special groups, or doing business under the counter with certain lobby groups to buy support or whatever it might be.”

“The record is pretty good there, too, with lots of steps in the right direction, even if pretty small,” said Pettit. The major actions are listed below.

Independent broadcaster

One of the most important steps, according to Pettit, was that Zapatero established a national broadcaster independent of the government. At his lecture in Madrid in 2004, Pettit challenged Zapatero on this score. “I said, ‘You will find that they are your harshest critic.’” Added Pettit, “It is essential for a modern democracy that government be exposed to that sort of independent, critical voice.” 

Decentralizing power

Pettit said that another key action Zapatero took was to “divest power from the center toward the so-called autonomous regions of Spain,” including “allowing Catalonia to propose a new statute governing its relations to the center.” He said that this has been especially controversial, with the right wing particularly critical of Zapatero. It fits, however, with the traditional republican emphasis on having the reins of government held in many hands. 

Government accountability

Along with significant reforms concerning government finances and economic accountability, Zapatero has changed Spain’s military posture: As Pettit put it, “Spain cannot commit troops abroad without the parliament approving.”

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