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Spain’s Socialists don’t know where to turn

A disastrous 2011 has left the Socialist Party divided and defeated. A party convention is looming, but it's unlikely to resolve some major problems.


Carme Chacón

Carme Chacón: An obvious choice as Socialist leader but no shoe-in.

A new Spanish government takes office and the year comes to a close, but the end is still not in sight for the existential crisis that the country’s Socialist Party (PSOE) is suffering.

It’s a crisis that one way or another, the PSOE has been going through for about 12 months, ever since José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero let slip, around Christmas of last year, that he might not be the party’s candidate in the next general elections. The frenzy of expectation was only partially dampened when Zapatero confirmed he wouldn’t be running, and the debate over who would succeed him gathered steam.

The “debate” turned into a swift rubber-stamping of the veteran Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba as the candidate. That hurried and confused selection process has been called into question and is just one of the issues the Socialists are now having to deal with. But the more pressing problem is their electoral performance in 2011: a hammering in May’s nationwide regional and municipal vote, followed by a record general election loss in November. In the space of six months, Spain’s political map was painted blue.

In February, the party will hold a convention in Seville to consider its future and pick a leader to take it forward. A month ahead of that crucial meeting, a split has opened up and there is no guarantee the convention will close it.

The schism has been highlighted by two opposing Socialist-authored documents.  On December 20, El País newspaper published Mucho PSOE por hacer (or “Plenty yet to be done in the PSOE”), a 25-point article underlining the achievements of Zapatero’s Socialist administration, but also starkly highlighting its mistakes in managing the economic crisis.

“When we apply, to a degree because we are forced to, policies against the crisis that are removed from our ideological orientation and our values, we lose part of our credibility,” the document states, in an apparent reprimand of Zapatero’s embracing of market-friendly, Brussels-decreed austerity measures during his last 18 months in office. Perhaps the most noteworthy element of this manifesto was not so much its content as the fact that former Defence Minister Carme Chacón signed it, possibly signalling her leadership ambitions and, vaguely, the direction in which she believes her party should head.

The response came a few days later in the form of Yo estuve allí (or “I was there”), whose signatories included several former ministers. The open letter seems to take direct aim at Chacón’s shunning of Zapatero’s legacy: “It is not dignified that those who were quite evidently there (in the government), and it should be said, in an enthusiastic way, should now suggest the contrary.”

So the gloves are off. A dispute over leadership and ideology that had been brewing for months, but which was suppressed by electoral priorities, has finally boiled over.

Chacón, who was abruptly passed over in the spring when Rubalcaba was approved as candidate, now clearly sees her chance. In many ways she is an obvious choice: at 40 she is young, but with ministerial experience and as a Catalan woman she breaks the mould for a Spanish party leader. But if the PSOE old guard opposes her, she will be far from a shoe-in. Also, her membership of the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) makes her an “outsider” in the eyes of some of the party’s veteran figures.

The former defence minister and Rubalcaba are currently the only serious candidates. Madrid Socialist leader Tomás Gómez is an outside bet and Basque premier Patxi López, whose stock is high, seems committed to the northern region.

A new direction – but which?

But amid this paucity of candidates, the PSOE has to grapple with the issue of ideology. Chacón and her co-signatories seem to think the economic crisis could have been managed in a different way, with less erosion of the welfare state. This would certainly be consistent with Zapatero’s first four years in power, when he was a proud Social Democrat who spent with aplomb. And yet, no European nation has so far managed to shun the fiscal demands of Brussels and the markets without suffering the fate of Greece, Ireland or Portugal.

If ever there was a time for politicians to come up with new ideas, it’s in Seville in early February. But whoever emerges as leader from that convention and whatever ideological arsenal they choose to oppose the government of Mariano Rajoy, the Socialist Party is going to be smarting from its disastrous 2011 for some time to come.

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Published: Dec 27 2011
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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