Wednesday, October 20, 2010

There's A New Balance Of Power In Spain's Government

Having effectively transformed the agreement with the Basque nationalist PNV from one that supported this year's budget into a broader one that should guarantee the government's survival until the end of its term in 2012, Spain's prime minister Zapatero has today decided to relaunch his team. The changes have been far more significant than expected, as Zapatero had previously hinted that he only intended to replace outgoing labour minister Celestino Corbacho.

The big winner in the reshuffle is almost universally regarded as being Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, who remains as interior minister but also gets to be a vice-president with powers overseeing government business. The rise of Rubalcaba involves the departure from the government of María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, who had occupied the vice-presidency since Zapatero was first elected in 2004. Nobody should feel too sorry for her, she gets a cushy position on the Consejo de Estado, a body which does very little except provide a comfortable lifetime paid position for its members! None of that fixed term nonsense on the Consejo.

Rubalcaba generally figures as the most popular minister in opinion polls, but belongs very much to the old guard of the PSOE dating from the times of Felipe Gonzalez. His power behind the scenes has been increasing and this has led to him being seen as one of the possible successors to Zapatero. Other candidates are Jose Blanco, who keeps his post but also gets some of his former power in the party machine back. The defence minister, Carme Chacón, was also once seen as a possible successor to Zapatero and she keeps her post too. Rumours that she would join Corbacho by being sacrificed at the front in the forthcoming Catalan election campaign don't seem to have foundation.

Blanco regained influence through the move that takes Leire Pajín from being in charge of party organisation to taking over the health ministry. It seems that Blanco and Pajín did not get on well and there has been a bit of a turf war between them. Much has been made today of Spain getting a health minister who likes to wear one of these worthless hologram bracelets that work by separating the gullible from their money. Public finances probably don't allow for them being available on prescription, unless the hospitals are simply closed.

Space for Pajín was made with the promotion of Trinidad Jiménez to take over as foreign minister from Miguel Angel Moratinos. There's little doubt that this is a reward for Jiménez for standing against Tomas Gómez in the primaries to decide the PSOE candidate for next year's regional election in Madrid. She's done quite well out of losing that battle, you have to say. Moratinos has been running an increasingly lacklustre and low profile foreign policy which largely seems to consist of not doing anything that might annoy anyone. Not that this is likely to change now.

Then we have a new labour minister, Valeriano Gómez, who was photographed participating in the demonstration against the government's labour market reform on September 29th, the day of the general strike. If I was in the parliamentary opposition I think I would already have tabled a question on whether he decided the reform was actually a good idea before or after getting into the ministerial car for the first time? His close links to the unions are seen as a conciliatory gesture, perhaps the only one that will be offered now that the markets are given first call on all policy decisions.

The reshuffle also sees the end of two ministries, equality and housing. These have been merged into health and public works respectively. The equality ministry, headed by Bibiana Aído, has been a favourite target of the right-wing media. Mainly because they hate the idea of equality anyway, but also because Aído steered through the abortion law reform. The decision to abolish the ministry is surprising because it was one of Zapatero's own flagship innovations. To merge it with health is a very arguable decision, you could put a better case for it to belong to economy.

The housing ministry will not be missed as most of the powers in this area already belong to regional and local administrations. With no money available, the job of minister Beatriz Corredor had been more or less reduced to the annual, and still over-optimistic assertion, that house prices in Spain have stopped falling and that it was time for everyone to buy. Even Zapatero took that task upon himself recently. A further surprise came with the appointment of Rosa Aguilar, once a prominent and popular figure in Izquierda Unida, to be environment and agriculture minister. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that she gets the job as much for the political journey she has made as for any other reason.

So it's a relaunch of the government, rather than just a reshuffle, and one which allows Zapatero to hand out rewards and adjust the equilibrium between those who might be looking over his shoulder. In doing so he keeps the issue of his own future open, with a stability agreement for the first time in this parliament that he hopes will give him time to close that ominously large gap in the opinion polls. He knows the strategy of his opposition, Mariano Rajoy continues to seek a place in the record books for sleeping the longest ever siesta as he relies on the crisis continuing to chip away at the government's support. The PP have been robbed of the prospect of early elections, but the question is whether 18 months is enough time for Zapatero to recover lost ground?

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