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No end in sight to Zapatero’s succession dilemma

The Spanish prime minister has had a tough autumn so far, leaving him weaker than ever. However, there is little indication he will be replaced as the Socialist candidate for the 2012 general elections.

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As José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero stood listening to the barrage of booing and shouts for him to resign while he attended the October 12 national festivities in Madrid, the idea of enduring this kind of vitriol until 2016 can hardly have been appealing. And yet, although the prime minister is going through by far his toughest spell since taking office in 2004, he has still not announced whether he will run for a third term.

Even King Juan Carlos expressed his annoyance at the abuse voiced at the military parade and the government attributed it to elements of the extreme right. However, while Zapatero has heard it before, the boos ringing in his ears this year represent widespread anger at his failure to turn the economy around and create jobs.

With the prospect of early general elections apparently banished by the government’s congressional pact with the PNV Basque nationalists, the vote will almost certainly take place in the spring of 2012. Only a year ago Zapatero looked like a sure bet to run for a third term, but 12 months on he is a different figure: battered, bruised and implementing the kind of orthodox economic policies that he would have sneered at during his first four-year term.

The latest reports suggest he will delay the decision on whether to run until after next spring’s regional and municipal elections. Those, it is assumed, will offer a gauge of his chances in the 2012 ballot.

One of the few qualities Zapatero reportedly admired about his Popular Party (PP) predecessor, José María Aznar, was that man’s decision, announced well in advance, not to run for a third term. It added to Aznar’s air of decisiveness and authority and clarified the country’s political calendar. At the time, Aznar’s party was in control of Congress and he would eventually choose his successor, Mariano Rajoy, without any kind of primary process.

Zapatero is in a less commanding position. If the Socialists suffer badly in the local elections -which appears likely- and Zapatero decides not to run again, he will be passing a poisoned chalice to the party’s new candidate, who would probably be heading for defeat. Also, stepping down would open up a frenzy of speculation around the party ahead of a Socialist primary vote, which would be an unwelcome distraction from policy-making. Worse, it could reinforce the notion of Zapatero as a lame duck for the remainder of his second term.

The regional premier of Castilla-La Mancha, José María Barreda, is the only high-profile Socialist to break ranks on this issue, effectively calling on Zapatero not to run for another term. “Either (the Socialist party) changes direction or it must take drastic measures,” he warned on October 8, forecasting an “electoral disaster” if it does not. Barreda quickly backtracked on his remarks, but he can’t be the only Socialist regional leader who is concerned that Zapatero’s unpopularity will hurt the party’s performance in the spring local elections.

Surviving  a torrid autumn

And yet, an optimistic Socialist might take heart from the fact that their leader has just survived a potentially disastrous few weeks.

The September 29 general strike was, polls showed, bad for the prime minister, but it was generally portrayed in the media and perceived by the public as a failure on the part of the unions that organized it. Nor has it forced Zapatero into any kind of u-turn, which was its aim.

Meanwhile, the Socialists negotiated their pact with the PNV to ensure the 2011 budget’s passage through Congress and avoid a parliamentary isolation that would have triggered an early election. However, while it saved the government’s skin, this deal also highlighted its lack of allies and culminated in the embarrassing marginalisation of the governing Basque Socialists in favour of the PNV, which is in opposition in the northern region.

While that was seen as a bullet Zapatero had little choice but to bite, the primary vote to choose a Socialist candidate for the Madrid regional elections was needlessly clumsy. The prime minister’s heavy-handed attempt to hand-pick Trinidad Jiménez for the chance to challenge for the Madrid premiership backfired as regional Socialist leader Tomás Gómez stood firm and insisted on running. Gómez won the primary and is now seen as the candidate of the grass roots who trumped the candidate of the national party machine.

The upshot of all this is that Zapatero has come through his torrid autumn tests, but is weaker than ever. In other parties this might invite speculation about leadership challenges and invite ambitious colleagues to throw their hats into the ring (the media has mentioned Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba as a potential “caretaker” candidate as well as the less plausible Public Works Minister José Blanco). But so far, the party either sees Zapatero as its best hope, or does not dare make the kind of drastic change Barreda called for.

The prime minister himself is famously optimistic and hopes that once Spaniards see the economy turning around and unemployment dropping, they will be encouraged to vote for his party. While such a recovery is unlikely to be apparent by the time he makes his decision on whether to run, Zapatero might simply feel obligated to do so because stepping down ahead of the 2012 election would smack of surrender, however small his chances of winning currently appear to be.





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Published: Oct 15 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=1532
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