Rubalcaba, Spain's government heavyweight

20th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Spain's Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba shored up his position as the government's "strongman" and eventual candidate for prime minister when he was named deputy leader on Wednesday.

In a broad government reshuffle, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero named Rubalcaba as his new deputy while maintaining him in the job of interior minister, where he has led Madrid's successful fight against the Basque separatist group ETA.

Polls consistently show Rubalcaba, who served as education minister and minister for the presidency under Felipe Gonzalez in a previous socialist government, is the most respected member of Zapatero's cabinent.

He is seen as a possible successor to Zapatero, who still has not yet declared if he will stand as the Socialist Party's candidate for a third consecutive term in general elections slated for 2012.

"Rubalcaba turns into the strongman of the government," was the headline in the centre-left newspaper El Pais on its wesbite.

In announcing the cabinet shake-up, Zapatero described him as having "outstanding qualities for politics, for explaining the actions of the government and for the coordination of the government's actions.

"He is a magnificent interior minister and it seemed to me to be very convenient that he maintains that post given that we are in such a decisive moment where we are advancing towards the end of the terrorist group ETA."

Rubalcaba, 59, was appointed interior minister in April 2006, just two weeks after ETA declared a "permanent ceasefire" and started tentative peace talks with Madrid.

But in December 2006 it set off a bomb in a car park at Madrid's airport, killing two men, and in June 2007 it formally called off that ceasefire, citing a lack of concessions by the government in peace talks.

Since then the government has adopted a hard line against ETA, arresting dozens of its members and seizing several weapons caches in cooperation with forces in other countries, particularly France, that has seriously weakened the group's operational capacity.

With the announcement of another ceasefire last month on the part of ETA, Rubalcaba and the government must now deal with calls by the group for international mediators to help resolve the Basque conflict.

His experience dealing with ETA, which is held responsible for 829 deaths in a four-decades-long campaign for independence for the Basque Country of northern Spain and southwestern France, predates his interior minister role.

During another ETA ceasefire in 1998 and 1999 which led to talks between the Basque separatists and the conservative government in power at the time, he was the Socialists' contact person with the ruling Popular Party.

Zapatero named Rubalcaba as party spokesman after he was first elected in 2004, surprising many who expected he would be given a post with more responsibility.

But his negotiating skills in the corridors of parliament helped the ruling Socialists secure the support of minority parties.

He also played a major role in negotiations to draw up a proposal for a new Catalan statute that gave the northeastern region of Spain greater powers.

Rubalcaba has a doctorate in chemistry from Madrid's Complutense University where he went on to become a professor.

Born in northern Spain, he is married and an avid Real Madrid supporter.

© 2010 AFP

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