Spain's Zapatero replaces foreign minister in reshuffle

20th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Spain's prime minister named a new foreign minister and a new deputy in a dramatic reshuffle on Wednesday, vowing to beat an economic crisis that has hammered his popularity.

In the biggest cabinet shake-up since he took power in 2004, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the new team's major task is to repair the ailing economy and a jobless rate that has soared to more than 20 percent.

His Socialist government faces general elections in 2012.

"The time has come for a major overhaul of the government," Zapatero told a news conference after informing King Juan Carlos I of the surprise change in his ministerial line-up.

"It will be a government of reforms, of definitive economic recovery and employment."

The biggest move saw Spain's charismatic 48-year-old Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez take over as foreign minister from Miguel Angel Moratinos, 59, who had been in the post since Zapatero first came to power in 2004.

Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, who leads Spain's fight against armed Basque separatists ETA and is speculated to be a possible successor to Zapatero, was also handed an additional portfolio of deputy prime minister and chief government spokesman.

He replaces Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, 61, who had also held her post since 2004.

The prime minister has slumped in the opinion polls as he pushes through painful austerity measures and labour market reforms so as to trim the deficit and reduce a jobless rate of more than 20 percent.

Support for his ruling Socialists slid to 29.4 percent in October from 38 percent during the same month last year, according to a poll published last week in the centre-left daily newspaper, Publico.

The vast majority, 84.1 percent, of those surveyed said they had "little" or "no" trust in Zapatero, up from 73.1 percent in October 2009.

Spanish workers last month staged their first general strike since 2002 to protest labour market reforms which cut Spain's high cost of firing workers and gave companies more flexibility to reduce working hours and staff levels in economic downturns.

The media have been speculating about whether Zapatero will stand again in the 2012 general elections or hand over the leadership of the Socialist Party before it battles for votes with the conservative Popular Party.

The immediate challenge for Zapatero is passing a budget that pledges to cut spending next year by 7.9 percent to 122 billion euros (170 billion dollars). It has to be approved before the end of the year.

A defeat on the budget would almost certainly have forced Zapatero to call early elections.

Hours before the cabinet reshuffle, however, the budget cleared a first hurdle when lawmakers voted by 177 votes to 167 to reject five blocking amendments.

The vote clears the way for a November 10-11 first reading on the budget by the lower house of parliament. It would still need clearance from the Senate and a final approval by parliament.

Zapatero secured enough votes to reject the amendments by enlisting the support of smaller parties including a tiny regional party from the Canary Islands and the Basque Nationalist Party.

Lined up in favour of the blocking amendments were the main opposition Popular Party and others including the Catalan and Galician nationalist parties.

With the budget passage apparently secure, Zapatero's new team is taking over as the government gears up for the 2012 general elections.

The head of the Popular Party, Mariano Rajoy, said what was needed was not a change of cabinet but a change of policy and new elections.

"The music is changing, but not the head of the orchestra, and Spain needs a change of orchestra leader and of score," he said following Zapatero's announcement.

In cost-cutting moves, the prime minister Wednesday also eliminated the ministries of equality and of housing, which will be incorporated into other ministries.

Among other changes, Labour Minister Celestino Corbacho, whose departure had been announced early September, is to be replaced by Valeriano Gomez, currently secretary general for employment.

Rosa Aguilar, a minister in the regional government in Andalucia, becomes environment minister, replacing Elena Espinosa.

The Socialist Party's number three, Leire Pajin, will replace Trinidad Jimenez as health minister.

© 2010 AFP

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