Spain's PM, facing economic woes, won't run for re-election

3rd April 2011, Comments 0 comments

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.

He 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.

Zapatero said 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.

His announcement followed months of speculation that the 50-year-old leader might not seek re-election.

He 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.

But he vowed to remain in office "until the last day" of his current mandate.

The conservative opposition Popular Party said the government should call elections immediately as "Spaniards must decide now".

The PSOE 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 among industrialised countries.

The government is seeking to reassure markets worried that its public deficit is unsustainably high and that Spain 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 had "a clear action programme 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 Madrid train bombings 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 Zapatero 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, which he said would be threatened if Rajoy won.

The prime minister last October promoted Rubalcaba to be his deputy in what Spanish media saw as a move to position him as successor.

Analysts said Zapatero's decision not to run again was aimed helping the PSOE both in the regional and municipal elections in May as well as in next year's legislative polls.

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".

Rubalcaba is seen as an smart political operator and he has gained support as interior minister for his tough stance against ETA. He was hospitalised for five days last month after catching a urinary tract infection caused by a prostate biopsy.

An online poll by the daily El Pais, asking which candidate would be the best successor to Zapatero, gave 58 percent to Rubalcaba and 20 percent to Chacon with some 10,310 votes cast.

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.

© 2011 AFP

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