Some think it began with an article in El País shortly before Christmas. Whatever the original cause might have been, there has been extensive speculation over the last few weeks about whether Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will stand for a third term of office at the next election. Now that election does not have to be held before 2012, and Zapatero himself has avoided addressing the issue; but it has been suggested in the past that he might want to "do an Aznar" and leave voluntarily after two terms in office.
Supposing that he doesn't want to continue in the job, Zapatero faces the problem of what we doctors call "Blair's Syndrome". This condition affects the ability of a prime minister to leave office when things are going badly, it's believed to have a particularly serious effect on the legacy. Declaring that he doesn't intend to stand again when unemployment in Spain is still hovering around 4 million would not look good, and given that there is little hope of a significant improvement in the near future, that suggests Zapatero would have a very limited window of opportunity if he chose to give another candidate time to get ready.
Then there is the question of who that candidate might be. Zapatero himself would be the person with most influence over that decision and there is as yet no obviously anointed successor. The favourites from the younger generation of PSOE politicians seem to be the Basque president Patxi López, the defence minister Carme Chacón and José Blanco, who still wields influence over the party machine. López is currently having problems convincing the Basques that he is doing a good job, Chacón has lost favour a bit over the clumsy handling of the troop withdrawal from Kosovo, and Blanco is skilled in the art of political presentation but doesn't seem to be very popular in the opinion polls. Oddly, there are quite a few who look back to the pre-Zapatero generation and name candidates such as interior minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba and even Javier Solana who has spent years outside of Spanish politics.
All of this may just count as idle speculation, a way of passing the time. Officially, there are very few prominent PSOE figures who would even suggest that Zapatero will not be a candidate in the next election. The opinion polls may show the government trailing at the moment, but the gap is not so great that it will provoke a crisis within the governing party. On the contrary, given everything that has happened to the economy in the last 18 months it's surprising that the difference between the major parties is so small. At least part of the explanation for that is called Mariano Rajoy. Zapatero has, with his initial unwillingness to recognise the depth of the crisis, clearly lost much of his shine. But it's not clear whether he or his party is yet ready for the post-Zapatero era.