Two ministers seen as candidates to replace Zapatero

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Two leading members of the cabinet of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero are seen as the most likely candidates to succeed him following his announcement that he will not seek a third term.

Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba is the hot favorite, but Defence Minister Carme Chacon, a rising political star, could also be named.

Rubalcaba, 59, is viewed as the government's "heavyweight" and Zapatero's right-hand man, despite some recent health problems.

In a broad government reshuffle last year, Rodriguez promoted him to deputy prime minister, while maintaining him in the post 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 cabinet.

Rubalcaba 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.

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.

Chacon, 40, the media-friendly defence minister, is one of Zapatero's most trusted ministers.

If she was named to replace him, it would mark the passing the party on to a new generation.

She is backed by many in the Socialist Party, in particular those in the northeastern region of Catalonia, where she began her political career.

At only 37, she became the first female defence minister in the country's history in 2008, charged with overseeing the 79,000 members of Spain's armed forces.

That was seen as a tough challenge in a country where women were only admitted to the armed forces in 1988 and no woman has yet achieved the rank of general.

She has since made several trips to visit Spanish troops in Afghanistan and in Lebanon.

Born on March 13, 1971, she graduated in law, and also studied in Britain and Canada.

She was professor of constitutional law in Barcelona and served as an international observer for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Bosnia and Albania.

In 2004, Chacon was elected vice president of the Congress of Deputies, and in July 2007 Zapatero named her housing minister in a cabinet reshuffle.

Her nine months there were marked by the approval of several measures to help young people find housing.

© 2011 AFP

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