The economic crisis made Spanish reformist prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero throw in the sponge in September and call autumn elections.
Saying that for him this closed a chapter of responsibility, he also announced he would withdraw from politics now.
The former lawyer took on the job seven years ago, after having long been Spain’s youngest member of parliament, to general surprise winning the 2004 elections. Chosen as the Socialist party leader in 2000, he now got the post his Partido Popular opposite had wanted, Mariano Rajoy, successor to Jose Maria Aznar.
Prime Minister Aznar pinned the 11 March 2004 Islamist attacks on ETA; this error and the Spanish people’s opposition to involvement in the Iraq war contributed to Zapatero’s victory.
Straight away the head of the new Socialist government pulled the troops out of Iraq, swiftly making him a familiar face in international media.
Then he made an impression with the legalisation of gay marriage in Spain — the fourth country in the world to do this — in 2005. It was the first in a series of reforms to modernise Spanish society.
In 2009 Zapatero brought in a law allowing easier access to abortion, notably so that 16-year-olds would not have to have their parents’ consent. The country’s conservatives, along with the Catholic Church, condemned this.
Zapatero’s two terms in office were also marked by his ETA dealings. When negotiations failed and the Basque terrorist band ended a truce with a car bombing at Madrid airport on December 30 2006, he reinforced police cooperation with France and it paid off. ETA said it was renouncing violence this year on October 20.
Zapatero said: “We feel a legitimate satisfaction in the victory of democracy, law and reason — a satisfaction, however, tainted by an unforgettable memory of violent pain which should never have happened and should never happen again.”
But it was Zapatero’s handling of the economic crisis that finally lost him Spaniards’ support. After denying the country was in such serious trouble he launched austerity plans in May last year that reduced public sector salaries, froze pensions, raised VAT and suspended baby bonuses.
Reform to make the labour market more flexible didn’t stop the disappearance of jobs, and by the end of his term nearly five million people were out of work.
At 51, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is leaving political life, returning to the city he grew up in, Leon, with his wife Sonsoles.