Spanish premier replaces foreign minister in broad reshuffle

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Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced a surprise cabinet shake-up with a new foreign minister Wednesday as he fights an economic crisis and plummeting polls.

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

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

The big news is that Spain's charismatic 48-year-old Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez takes over as foreign minister from Miguel Angel Moratinos, who has been in the post since 2004.

Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, the man who leads Spain's fight against armed Basque separatists ETA and is tipped as a possible successor to Zapatero, also takes on an additional portfolio of deputy prime minister and chief government spokesman.

He replaces Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega.

The prime minister has slumped in the opinion polls as he pushes through painful austerity measures and labour market reforms 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 of those surveyed, 84.1 percent, 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 that 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 opposition 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.

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

Defeat would almost certainly have forced Zapatero to call early elections.

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 conservative 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 2012 general elections.

In what were seen as cost-cutting moves, Zapatero Wednesday eliminated the ministries of equality and of housing, which will be incorporated respectively into the ministries of health and of transport and development.

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.

The ministers of defence and of finance, Carme Chacon and Elena Salgado, both keep their posts.

© 2010 AFP

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