In an interview with a gay magazine, the leader of Spain’s Socialist party has promised to fight any attempt to remove or weaken gay rights laws he has introduced as Prime Minister.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has called a general election for March 9th.

During his four years in office he has legalised gay marriage and given same-sex couples the right to adopt.

The lead up to the election has been marked by bad-tempered exchanges between the government and the Roman Catholic church.

In his exclusive interview with gay magazine Zero Mr Zapatero said that the law and not the church ruled Spain.

“We will make sure that not a single step backwards is taken on the land we have won,” he said, adding that if re-elected he will bring in new laws to tackle homophobia.

The main opposition party Partido Popular declined to be interviewed for the magazine.

Mariano Rajoy, who leads the conservative PP, has stated he is ready to take away the right to adopt from gay couples.

PP has promised to establish a new “family” ministry if they win the elections next month and suggested that the “traditional family” needs extra protection.

Despite their appeals to devout Spaniards and their conservative stance, PP has not indicated they intend to amend or abolish gay marriage should they come to power.

However, some PP politicians have hinted they may “return” to the issue as they object to the use of the word ‘marriage.’

They have concentrated on proposing tax cuts for businesses and those on low incomes, while the government has pledged to create 1.6 million new jobs.

Spain’s ambassador to the Vatican met with Church officials earlier this month to protest about interference in the elections by the country’s bishops.

Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos revealed that Ambassador Francisco Vazquez expressed his “perplexity and surprise” at statement issued last week by the Spanish Bishop’s Conference.

“Catholics may support and join different parties it is also true that not all (electoral) programmes are equally compatible with the faith and Christian demands in life,” the bishops said.

This was widely interpreted as an instruction to the faithful not to vote for parties that support gay marriage or negotiate with Basque terrorists.

At the end of December Pope Benedict XVI addressed a “family values” rally in Madrid by a videolink from Rome.

He told the crowd, estimated at 150,000 people, that the family is “based on the unbreakable union of man and woman and represents the privileged environment where human life is welcomed and protected from the beginning to its natural end.”

The rally was supported by PP.

Antonio Poveda, president of the Federation of Gays and Lesbians, has accused PP of open homophobia.

“We’ve fought hard to achieve equal rights and are appalled by this party’s stated wish to turn the clock back to Spain’s repressive past,” he said.

Latest opinion polls from Angus Reid Global Monitor show 40.2% of respondents supporting Mr Zapatero’s Socialists, with 38.7% support for PP.