Spain's election campaign preceding the November elections is ironically going to be kicked off by Pope Benedict XVI.
The pontiff will arrive in Madrid on August 18 for four days to celebrate World Youth Day, a Catholic sponsored event that brings young people worldwide together. It combines a pilgrimage with a music festival complete with outdoor masses, religious processions, concerts and cultural exhibits. World Youth Day is held once every three years and will last for six days.
While billed as non-political, the event emphasizes the religious fault line in Spanish politics.
The opposition Popular Party that expects to return to power following eight years in opposition is strongly associated with the country's Catholic subculture.
The ruling Socialist Party and parties further to the left are associated with the lay all the way to the anti-clerical subculture.
While the post-Franco constitution adopted in 1978 when the country returned to democratic rule pledged to respect the position of the church, since 2004 the Socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has weakened that position. For example, in 2005 it passed a same-sex marriage bill and streamlined the divorce process. It now takes 10 days when beforehand it took two years to get a divorce in Spain.
The fear that the Popular Party's predicted return to power will mean a reversal of these policies will be used by the Socialists for political recruitment, as they are on shaky economic grounds given the meltdown.
This has stoked opposition to World Youth Day. Dozens of secularists and left-wing groups plan to stage a march against the visit and a major trade union is threatening a strike at the Madrid Metro network to coincide with the visit.
For the Catholics, on the other hand, it will be a show of strength providing enthusiasm for the oncoming campaign. When the event was scheduled nobody knew that elections would be advanced, but undoubtedly the considerations of a Catholic pushback figured in the selection of Madrid to host the event.
The left points to the anomaly that while transit fares are being raised in Madrid, the foreign participants will receive a heavily discounted one week pass on public transport. The Popular Party runs Madrid and many other towns following its victory in the municipal elections.
Both sides of the debate are hiding behind economics. The left is complaining that at a time of austerity it is a provocation to allocate government funds for the event, including the massive security. The organizers reply that the pilgrims will inject a substantial amount of money into the Spanish economy and create jobs.
The event is essentially self- financing – most of the funding will come from pilgrim registration fees and the shortfall will be made up by corporate donations. The left in response plans to boycott the event's sponsors including Coca-Cola, Santander Bank and Telefonica.