Spanish prime minister makes broad cabinet reshuffle

20th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, plunging in popularity as he fights an economic crisis, will announce a major cabinet shake-up Wednesday, the government said.

The Spanish leader is replacing his long-term foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, as part of a wide-ranging reshuffle, according to reports in El Pais and other media.

Zapatero is naming a new team after securing support from minor parties to narrowly pass a cost-slashing budget in parliament. A budget defeat would have forced him into early general elections.

Among the major changes, Zapatero is promoting charismatic health minister Trinidad Jimenez to the job of foreign minister, El Pais said in its online edition.

Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba takes on an additional porfolio of deputy prime minister and chief government spokesman, replacing Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, the left-of-centre paper said.

"There will be a broad reshuffle of the government in that direction," said a spokesman for the prime minister's office. He declined however to give any details of the changes.

Zapatero will meet in the morning with King Juan Carlos I to inform him of the ministeral changes and then announce the new government line-up to the press, he said.

The prime minister has slumped in the opinion polls as he pushes through painful austerity measures and labour market reforms, and advocates deep budget cuts to avoid a Greek-style debt crisis.

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 major challenge for Zapatero has been 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.

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

Among the major cabinet changes reported by El Pais:

- Jimenez takes over as foreign minister, a dramatic change in fortune after she lost a vote this month to represent her ruling Socialist Party in 2011 regional elections in the Madrid region.

- Rubalcaba, who has led the battle against armed Basque separatists ETA and is often touted as a candidate to succeed Zapatero, extends his power in the government to become the premier's deputy as well as keeping his job as interior minister.

- Labour Minister Celestino Corbacho, whose departure had been announced early September, is to be replaced by Valeriano Gomez.

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

Zapatero on Monday secured the budget's near-certain passage by winning the support of a tiny regional party, the Canary Islands Coalition with two seats in the 350-seat parliament.

The government had sealed a similar deal on Friday with the Basque Nationalist Party, which has six seats in the assembly.

With 169 seats in Spain's 350-member assembly, Zapatero's Socialists are seven seats short of a majority and have to pass legislation on a vote-by-vote basis.

© 2010 AFP

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