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Zapatero was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t

The Spanish prime minister’s decision not to run for a third term gives the Socialists a small boost ahead of local elections. But it also opens up a new series of problems for the party.


The Spanish prime minister’s announcement that he will not run as the Socialist candidate in the 2012 general election was, by the time he made it on April 2, hardly a surprise. Rumours and reports to this effect had been leaking out of the party camp for weeks. But while this decision clears the air of any lingering uncertainty about José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s future, that of his party remains very much shrouded in mystery.

According to the Socialists, their leader’s calculated withdrawal puts them on the front foot as the May 22 local elections approach. Zapatero, they reason, has taken the initiative, choosing when to go rather than allowing events to dictate his course.

This is true, but only up to a point. Zapatero has decided to step down because he is no longer the electoral asset he was for the Socialist Party. Since a resounding win in the 2008 general election, the economic crisis and a 20-percent unemployment rate have eroded his political capital. Wavering in the Socialist camp over how much exposure the prime minister should have during the local election campaign has highlighted the fact that many regional party leaders now suspect he could be a liability for their own chances in May.

Also, the decision not to run in next year’s election was not a bold one made at the start of his tenure, as was the case with José María Aznar. Over the last three months the will-he-won’t-he debate has dominated Spanish politics. While this was a welcome distraction for the Socialists early on, it soon became an unwelcome red herring, given the seriousness of the reform program Zapatero has undertaken.

Inevitably, there will be a sense of renewed purpose in the Socialist Party ranks following his announcement, but it won’t be enough to prevent a hammering across much of the country in the local elections.

The problem now for the party is that having resolved one quandary, it now has another: who will succeed Zapatero as candidate and how exactly will the process take place?

The veteran Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba is the front-runner, followed by young promise Carme Chacón, the defence minister. There is, of course, always the possibility that a dark horse will emerge from the shadows, much like Zapatero himself did in 2000 (Madrid regional leader Tomás Gómez, for example, although he has denied such reports).

The primary election process that will choose the party’s candidate for 2012 is due to begin straight after the May vote. The idea is to prove the transparent, democratic nature of the Socialist Party compared to the Popular Party, whose current leader, Mariano Rajoy, was chosen and anointed by Aznar.  But this supposedly healthy process is still loaded with risks. The influential Rubalcaba and the ambitious Chacón already have their camps of supporters within the party and it’s easy to see a split opening up.

Also, once the new candidate is chosen, what role will Zapatero play? He will remain the party’s secretary general, according to senior Socialists, but if he does get involved in campaigning, there is a risk he could draw attention away from his successor. Alternatively, if he is locked away like an embarrassing relative to avoid contaminating the new candidate’s image, it hardly says much about the party’s self-confidence after eight years of government.

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Published: Apr 5 2011
Category: Iberoblog
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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