Friday, April 08, 2011

ZP, El Pato Cojo

We can't really claim the suspense was killing us, the speculation was all about when Zapatero would make his announcement that he wouldn't stand for re-election, not if he would make it. Things had reached the point where it had really become unsustainable to choose any other option after months of speculation and increasing pressure inside his own party for a decision to be made.

Not that there has ever been much sign of Zapatero intending to try for a third term. It has long been rumoured that he would "do an Aznar" and stand down voluntarily after two terms in office. What has happened is that the choice over the timing has not been as voluntary as he would have liked. Powerful regional figures in the PSOE have been expressing their worry that the appalling poll ratings for the national government would lead the party to disaster in the local and regional elections, where candidates with a good local record might hope to defy the trends of the polls.

The problem now for the PSOE is to keep the lid on any leadership struggle until after the May elections, although any open bidding for power in the meantime is likely to be quickly shot down as being disloyal to the party. Zapatero has made it clear that he favours a primary election to choose the new leader, the same route that he took to the top and a stark contrast with the opposition Partido Popular whose current leader was elected by one person; José Maria Aznar. I always think that the inner workings of a party reveal much about its attitude towards democracy in general (and of course in this case political heritage).

For many the overwhelming favourite as successor is the interior minister, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba. He is seen as a safe pair of hands who might just manage to salvage something for the party in next year's general election. Rubalcaba has a very powerful ally in the newspaper El País, in what would be an attempt by that paper's owners to regain some of the influence they have lost over the government. El País seems able to produce a poll showing extraordinary prospects for Rubalcaba at a moments notice and there is little doubt that some senior PSOE figures would like him to be installed without a contested election. It's strange that a politician who was said to be seeking retirement after the last general election should now be on the verge of becoming leader of the party. It's hard to see him as being anything more than a caretaker leader but you never know.

The main expected rival to the Rubalcaba option is defence minister Carme Chacón, who would represent a younger generation of politicians in the party. Chacón has been seen as Zapatero's favourite as successor after becoming the first woman defence minister, and the fact that she is Catalan would be seen as a nod to an important region in electoral terms. Ironically, she could lead a party that she is not officially a member of, as the Catalan PSC is in principle a separate organisation. We can only imagine for the moment the reaction of the right wing press in Spain to the prospect of a Catalan female becoming prime minister. Heart attacks could be provoked just by the thought of it.

The possibility of other candidates shouldn't be ruled out, after all José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was virtually an unknown outside of his home territory when he stood for election as PSOE leader. Another question is whether there will be behind the scenes negotiations for a Rubalcaba-Chacón "dream ticket", presumably put together with the promise that Rubalcaba would stand down in the event of an election defeat. It's a risky game for Chacón to play, sometimes if you don't stand you lose your chance forever as anyone else can come forward in the future. Don't expect much ideology from either of them, Rubalcaba is a machine politician and Chacón will represent a continuation of Zapaterismo.

The PP has already been clamouring for early elections to be called, although it's still notable that they refuse to present a parliamentary motion of censure. In many ways Rubalcaba has been their main target ever since the reshuffle last year gave him a more prominent role in the general business of the government. They have been chipping away at his generally high approval rating. It's not clear whether Zapatero will stand down after the new leader is elected, or whether he will follow Aznar's lead and stay as prime minister but not as candidate, continuing to take the flak for the economy's weakness. 

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