Spain’s prime minister is on the way out. The only question is when Oct 21st 2010 | Madrid
CAN things get any worse for José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain’s beleaguered prime minister? Probably not. Austerity measures, labour reform and strikes have taken their toll: opinion polls show support for his Socialist Party plummeting to 29%, whileunemployment, at over 20%, remains twice the euro-zone average. Speculation is rife over who will succeed Mr Zapatero as party leader, and whether he will step down before or after the next general election, due in 2012.
Hoping to secure his survival for the next 18 months, on October 20th Mr Zapatero unveiled a cabinet reshuffle. Out went Miguel Ángel Moratinos, the long-serving foreign minister,to be replaced by Trinidad Jiménez, the health minister and a favourite of Mr Zapatero’s. Two ministries were scrapped entirely. Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the veteran interior minister, adds the jobs of deputy prime minister and government spokesman to his portfolio.
A few days earlier Mr Zapatero had sealed a pact with the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) to ensure the passage of his minoritygovernment’s budget. Mr Zapatero’s boosters said the deal would help keep the prime minister in his job until 2012. Iñigo Urkullu, the PNV’s leader, gave no guarantee, but said that Mr Zapatero should reach the finishing line. In return, his party has won further transfers of power and money to the already highly devolved Basque regional government.
The reshuffle and the pact will free the Socialiststo focus on a number of electoral contests to come—and to decide whether Mr Zapatero is the man to lead them into battle. The prospect of a series of heavy losses in regional elections over the next eight months, starting with Catalonia on November 28th, has started to concentrate minds within the party.
In early October Mr Zapatero suffered his first big internal party defeat. In a primaryelection to choose a candidate to lead the Socialists into elections for the Madrid parliament next May, Tomás Gómez, the party’s leader in the capital, beat Ms Jiménez. This led to calls for change. “We are heading towards electoral disaster if we do not change tack,” said José María Barreda, the Socialists’ leader in the region of Castile La Mancha. Carme Chacón, the defence minister, chose thismoment to state that Spain was ready for its first woman prime minister, sparking debate about whether she was pitching for the job.
The question now is not whether Mr Zapatero will go, but when. Will he lead the party to electoral defeat in 2012 and fall on his sword afterwards, or will he stand down just before, recognising that only a fresh Socialist leader can stop a severe drubbing by theconservative People’s Party? The PP’s lead in some polls has risen to 14 points, enough to give it an absolute majority in parliament. Mr Zapatero has said, privately, that he will make the decision next year, according to El País.
Who might come next? Ms Chacón would certainly present a different face. A 39-year-old, she would represent both a new generation and a gender revolution. She madeheadlines on her first day in office by inspecting troops when seven months’ pregnant. Other potential candidates include Mr Rubalcaba and Eduardo Madina, a 34-year-old rising star.
Meanwhile, Spain continues its snail-paced recovery. Few people outside the government expect growth above 1% next year. The IMF predicts that unemployment will remain the highest in the euro zone for at least five years.The devastated housing market has further to fall, and 20% of mortgage-holders could find themselves in negative equity, according to Standard & Poor’s, a credit-rating agency.
Spain’s recovery, in other words, will at best be faintly apparent by the time voters reach the polling booths early in 2012. That will be a good time to sweep out the old and bring in the new. But will anyone else...