Spain's PM, facing economic woes, won't run for re-election
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, plunging in popularity as he fights an economic crisis, announced Saturday he will not seek a third term in 2012 elections.
Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, 59, one of the most powerful figures in the government, is the most likely candidate to succeed Zapatero as Socialist Party leader, according to analysts.
But Defence Minister Carme Chacon, 40, who has had a meteoric rise through the party, also has strong support.
"I will not be a candidate in the next general elections," Zapatero said in a televised speech to the party's federal assembly in Madrid.
The prime minister called on the party to hold an internal primary to elect a new person to lead the party in the general elections scheduled for March 2012.
He said that that process should begin after regional and municipal elections on May 22, polls in which the Socialist Party (PSOE) is expected to suffer heavy losses.
Zapatero's announcement follows months of speculation that the 50-year-old leader might not seek re-election.
The prime minister said that when he was first elected in 2004 he had already intended to remain head of government for only two terms.
"I had thought about this seven years ago, two terms are enough," he said.
He vowed to remain in office "until the last day" of his current mandate.
The conservative opposition Popular Party responded by saying the government should call elections immediately as "Spaniards must decide now."
The Socialist Party has slumped in the opinion polls against the PP, led by Mariano Rajoy, as Zapatero attempts to push through painful austerity measures and labour market reforms to trim the public deficit and slash unemployment.
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 in industrialised countries.
The government is seeking to reassure markets worried that its public deficit is unsustainably high and that the country could follow Greece and Ireland in seeking a debt bailout.
The Bank of Spain warned Wednesday of slower-than-expected growth ahead and predicted the country would miss its key public deficit targets this year and next.
Zapatero said Saturday that the government was committed to an "intense modernisation process" and had "a clear action program for the remainder of the term" to overcome the crisis and promote economic recovery and job creation.
Zapatero first took office in a surprise election win over Rajoy on March 14, 2004, just three days after the Madrid train bombings which killed 191 people.
He drew support from many Spaniards who accused the conservatives of attempting a cover-up by insisting the Basque separatist group ETA was to blame even though evidence pointed to Islamic extremists angered by Madrid's role in Iraq.
During his first term he was seen as a bold reformer, passing landmark social reforms such as the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
The former lawyer was re-elected as head of a minority government in March 2008 after campaigning as the face of the modern, progressive Spain that his government had helped to create and which he said would be threatened if Rajoy won.
The prime minister last October announced the most sweeping cabinet reshuffle since he came to office, promoting Rubalcaba to be his deputy in what Spanish media saw as a move to place the minister in a position to succeed him.
Analysts said latest Zapatero's decision was aimed helping the PSOE both in the regional and municipal elections in May as well as in next year's legislative polls.
"The Socialists believe that continuing with Zapatero would be very bad for the next elections," said Edurne Uriarte, a professor of political science at the Madrid's Juan Carlos I University.
Fermin Bouza, an analyst at Madrid's Complutense University, said "Rajoy's biggest chance of winning would be against Zapatero.
He 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."
© 2011 AFP