PM lines up new team for time of crisis

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New cabinet marks the historic moment of more women than men and two new portfolios.

14 April 2008

MADRID - In attempting to build a government better prepared to tackle the challenges looming over the Spanish economy without losing focus on the social reforms that were the mainstay of his first term, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has brought together a second-term Cabinet of old friends, veteran political allies and fresh faces - while setting a few records in the process.

Announced Saturday, the Cabinet will be the first in Spanish history to consist of more women than men. It will include Spain's first female defence minister - Carme Chacón - as well as the country's youngest-ever minister, 31-year-old Equality Minister Bibiana Aído. And it incorporates two new portfolios: Aído's Equality brief and Science and Innovation.

The Cabinet structure is clearly a reflection of Zapatero's social priorities, notably enhancing gender equality. But it is also a response to what will undoubtedly be the biggest challenges the new government will face in the early days of the legislature: dealing with a crisis in the real estate sector, rising unemployment, skyrocketing inflation and a slowing economy.

Miguel Sebastián, one of Zapatero's closest friends and his former economics aide, has been drafted in to head the Industry Ministry, a portfolio that is likely to gain increased prominence, particularly as its remit includes energy policy.

Sebastián was the brains behind the Socialist Party's campaign promise of a EUR 400 tax rebate - a move that received a lukewarm welcome from Pedro Solbes, who will remain on as economy minister. Deputy prime minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega and the interior, foreign and justice ministers will keep their jobs.
While Solbes and Sebastián may not see eye to eye, the latter has brought with him some important if little-known allies: Cristina Garmendia, who will head the new Science and Innovation Ministry, and Beatriz Corredor, who will have the traditionally thankless task of running the Housing Ministry.

All four ministers will meet regularly under Solbes in the Economic Affairs Commission where the economy minister will be keen to show who is in charge.

"It's up to me to make decisions about the economy," Solbes snapped on Sunday when asked by reporters about Sebastián's new role.

In picking Sebastián, Zapatero has put a close friend and ally at his side. But he has failed to make room for another.

Jesús Caldera, labour and social affairs minister in the last legislature and the architect of the Socialist Party's successful election campaign has been cast out of the Cabinet.

Both he and Zapatero deny that they have had any disagreement. He has been promised a prominent role in a yet-to-be-confirmed Socialist think-tank.

Part of the reason Caldera is now jobless is the breaking up of his portfolio. Labour affairs will now be handled by the new Labour and Immigration Ministry under Celestino Corbacho, until recently the mayor of L'Hospitalet de Llobregat in Catalonia who is seen as being particularly tough on immigration.

Social policy meanwhile has been incorporated into a UK-style Education, Social Affairs and Sports Ministry to be headed by Mercedes Cabrera.

[El Pais / A. Eatwell / Expatica]

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