Michael Fragoso, policy analyst at Family Research Council, sends along the following:

The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) was victorious in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Although the center-right People’s Party (PP) made some isolated gains and the PSOE again failed to win an absolute majority, the result is disappointing, with José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero remaining Prime Minister.

Worthy of note is the coverage that the elections are getting in the United States: read most news accounts and one cannot help but conclude that the Left’s victory was all about social policy. The Washington Post was quick to note in the second paragraph, “Voters turned out in force to endorse the progressive social agenda that Zapatero championed in his first term — including new laws on women’s rights, divorce and gay marriage — and returned him to office for another four years.” The New York Times also partly credits the victory to homosexual marriage, and c an barely contain its glee that Sr. Zapatero seeks “to propel a country once gripped by religious conservatism into the liberal vanguard of Europe.”

The liberals at the Times are right to be excited, at a certain level. After all, it was a victory for the socialists, and Spain’s reputation as a bastion of Catholicism and conservatism is well known—from the Black Legend of old to Hugo Chavez’s recent whining about former Prime Minister José María Aznar. For secular schools and same-sex marriage to be winning political issues in a nation until recently called “Sword of the Pope” and “Hammer of Heretics” is quite the coup indeed. Sadly for the Times and Post, this is not what happened.

Of course Zapatero’s social policies are contentious in Spain; one can reasonably assume that some people voted either for PSOE or for the PP on account of them. Most Spanish reportage , however, indicates that nationalism was the issue of the day.

Contemporary Spain is made up of 17 “autonomous communities” and 2 “autonomous cities.” Some of these communities—most notably Catalonia and Basque Country—have long-standing independence movements—with the Basque movement breeding the notorious terrorist group ETA. The two main Spanish parties have very different approaches to regional autonomy and independence.

The PP believes in a central, Spanish national government, vaguely resembling something like the United States or the German Federation. It is well known for its law-and-order approach to nationalist terrorism.

The PSOE has expanded the bureaucratic self-government of the autonomous communities and is more open to “cultural” forms of autonomy. (Linguistic and dialectical differences figure prominently in both the justification for regional autonomy and “national independence” movements.) Zapatero has also sought to end the terrorism in Basque Country through negotiations with ETA rather than through force.

The differences between these sets of policies are stark, and they clearly would appeal to different groups: PP self-identified “Spaniards,” and PSOE regional malcontents. More than anything else this election was about regional and ethnic tensions and the jockeying by political parties to exploit these them—not the grand repudiation of Iraq and the Church that the American media seem to have seen.

Evidence for this can be seen in a helpful map provided by the liberal Spanish paper El Mundo. In total PSOE won 43.64% of the vote to PP’s 40.11%. In core “Spanish” regions, PP did quite well, with sizeable victories in Galicia, Madrid, Castile and Leon, Cantabria, Rioja, Valencia, Castile-La Mancha, and Murcia. The socialists, on the other hand won Aragon, Catalonia, Basque Country, Navarre, Andalusia and Extremadura. Of these Catalonia, Andalusia, and Basque Country have strong “nationalist” movements. In many ways, it is a “red-state blue-state” divide, with the “red states” largely consisting of the medieval kingdoms of Castile and Leon.

While in this election social issues were not at the fore of the Spanish elections, pace the American media, the Spanish conservatives would do well to make them such in the future. This election showed that the PP will have a difficult time appealing merely to economic reform and national unity so long as the socialists kowtow to the nationalists and separatists. If the conservatives want to make headway into different ethno-national populations like Catalonia and Andalusia, perhaps they should remind these voters what else they get in their deal with the socialists: what region gains “autonomy” by being forced to accept gay marriage or abortion through a central government? Are more signs in an area’s native language worth a militantly secular national government interfering in local schools or mandating easy divorce?

The conservatives need to reframe their message and expand their coalition. Radically liberal social policies are bad for regional autonomy, as well as for Spanish Catholics. That should make these policies bad politics for the socialists, which is hopefully something the conservatives will learn before the next election.