Post-Zapatero succession battle looms for Spain's Socialists
Spain's ruling Socialists, deeply unpopular for introducing biting austerity measures, have begun looking to life after Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who will not seek a third term in 2012.
His announcement Saturday kicked off a potentially bruising succession battle ahead of party primaries in June or July.
The natural favourite is Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, 59, a pillar of the Zapatero government since 2004.
But some in the PSOE party prefer Defence Minister Carme Chacon, who at age 40 is a rising star.
Zapatero, 50, who was urged to step aside to give the party a new lease of life, said Saturday: "Two terms are enough."
He said he did not want to "prolong idle speculation" that could distract the government from its key goal of trimming the public deficit and slashing unemployment.
The decision appears to have been prompted by dire predictions that the PSOE faces a rout in local elections on May 22.
"Socialist leaders had been telling him for months that he must make this announcement," said Edurne Uriarte, a political science professor in Madrid.
"They have the feeling that continuing with Zapatero would have been very negative ahead of the elections."
The move improves the Socialists' chances, he said, adding: "The Socialist barons feared a protest vote, that Spaniards would vote against the Socialists rather than simply for their mayors."
An opinion poll of voter intentions at next year's parliamentary elections, published Sunday, confirmed the Socialists' nosedive with 28 percent for the PSOE against 44 percent for the right-wing conservative Popular Party (PP) of Mariano Rajoy.
Meanwhile the centre-right newspaper El Mundo opined that Zapatero, by announcing the primaries, had "closed the door to those who saw Rubalcaba as the natural candidate."
The survey found that Rubalcaba enjoyed 42 percent support from voters overall and 52 percent support from those who identified themselves as Socialists.
Chacon was ranked first by 17 percent overall and by 15 percent of Socialist respondents.
The poll also indicated however that the defence minister's popularity is on the rise, while that of Rubalcaba, closely associated with Zapatero's painful austerity measures, is waning.
Sociologist Fermin Bouza of Madrid's Complutense University said the emergence of Rubalcaba as party leader would likely change the stakes for Rajoy.
The PP leader's "biggest chance of winning would (have been) against Zapatero," he said.
Bouza predicted "an agreement under which Rubalcaba would stand now (in 2012) and Chacon in the following elections (in 2016), avoiding a terrible fight in the primaries."
The date of the PSOE primaries will be decided May 28, and the process could last two months, with a successor possibly chosen by the end of July, according to El Pais.
The Spanish economy plunged into recession during the second half of 2008 as the global financial meltdown compounded the collapse of the once booming property market.
The economy shrank 0.1 percent in 2010 and the unemployment rate ended the year at 20.33 percent, the highest level among industrialised countries.
The government is seeking to reassure markets worried that the public deficit is unsustainably high and that Spain could follow Greece and Ireland in seeking a debt bailout.
© 2011 AFP