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A necessary crisis for Spain’s Socialists

The main opposition party hasn’t been able to gain political capital from the government’s austerity program and the Catalan crisis has merely amplified its problems.


Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba.

Confident communicator and Socialist fall guy Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. Photo: PSOE.

As the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) digests its disastrous performance in recent Galician and Basque elections, struggles to find a coherent and convincing response to the upsurge in Catalan nationalist sentiment, and its powerful Andalusian faction mulls overthrowing national leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, it’s hard not to look back to February of this year.

The Socialists had confirmed Rubalcaba’s appointment as party leader in the wake of the 2011 general election disaster. His only serious challenger, Carme Chacón, watched as he made his acceptance speech and she wept. According to many, they were tears of anger and disappointment at how the party old guard had blocked Chacón’s way to the top over the previous months.

But who – even the ambitious Chacón – would envy Rubalcaba his position now? Since last year’s regional elections, his party has lurched from disaster to disaster. A timeline in Sunday’s El País illustrated how the Socialists have lost control of the electoral map over recent years, to the extent that they now govern in only two of Spain’s 17 regions (and those in coalition with other parties).

And over the last few weeks alone a new challenge has emerged in Catalonia, taking virtually all political parties – the Socialists included – by surprise. The wave of support for independence there led by civic organisations and being ridden by regional premier Artur Mas presents a sudden and constantly developing issue. The Socialists seem to have agreed on a “third way” proposal for the region, a “federal” solution somewhere between the full breakaway advocated by Mas and the status quo defended by the central government.

It may sound as improvised as so much of the political response to the Catalan issue has been in recent weeks, but it does make sense for the Socialists to position themselves between the radical nationalists in Barcelona and the conservatives in Madrid. However, the party can’t seem to agree on whether or not a referendum would be held on this, with Rubalcaba against and the Socialists’ candidate for November 25’s Catalan elections, Pere Navarro (of the Catalan Socialist party, or PSC) in favour.

“I don’t share the formula of the right to decide, I don’t share it and in that sense I don’t share this part of the PSC’s electoral program,” said Rubalcaba in a frank but surprising acknowledgement of the Socialist schism.

The Catalan Socialists’ relative autonomy from the PSOE national machine has been one of Spanish politics’ ongoing glitches for some time. But it’s a glitch that has usually been smoothed over against the backdrop of other, bigger issues. Yet with Catalonia currently dominating Spanish politics, any discrepancies between the PSC and PSOE are magnified, especially when compared to the relatively disciplined Partido Popular.

This, of course, comes on top of an unease within the PSOE at the performance of Rubalcaba as opposition leader since Mariano Rajoy took power in December 2011. His attempts to provide something resembling “responsible” opposition and to distance himself from the Socialist government in which he was such an influential figure have been worthy, but ultimately unconvincing. While the governing party’s popularity has slid in recent months as austerity bites, so too has that of the Socialists – thus the recent rumblings of discontent in Andalusia.

Rubalcaba has long been known for his ability to manage and manipulate the media and his party’s message with an uncommonly confident public persona. But nearly a year into his opposition tenure, that ability to appear to be digging into his deepest thoughts while addressing a room full of journalists or voters has got him nowhere. And the main reason for this continues to be his association with the latter years of the Zapatero government, which failed to anticipate the economic crisis before starting the current austerity ball rolling.

How long will the Socialists need before Spaniards forgive them those dark couple of years of government? A year? Two? Possibly more. Because of that politically toxic time at the end of Zapatero’s tenure, the Socialists’ current walk in the wilderness has become unavoidable – and necessary. And surely even Rubalcaba, a heavyweight veteran of the party, knows he is the ideal fall guy, one who is taking the flak for his predecessor’s sins, before being replaced once the PSOE rediscovers where it is heading.

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Published: Oct 29 2012
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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