Spain’s Socialists Prepare For Life After Zapatero

Frontrunners from different political generations compete to win the party leadership as Zapatero prepares his legacy.

On April 2, Rodríguez Zapatero, Spanish prime minister and leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), announced his decision not to stand for re-election in 2012. This was a decision informed by both personal and political factors. For him, eight years as prime minister is enough time to advance a political vision for Spain, and, as he acknowledged, the job does not come with-out personal sacrifices.

The announcement was accompanied by a call for the democratisation of the party leadership election process in order to facilitate the participation of rank and file members. Thus, after upcoming local and regional elections, the PSOE will call primary leadership elections. Last time around in 2000, despite all predictions, Zapatero won the party leadership after a process in which most of the regional party leaders supported another candidate, José Bono.

Now, Zapatero wants to end his tenure with a more democratic system in place than that which delivered him to power and in so doing help to mould a personal political legacy in which democratic reform and citizen rights will be viewed as central achievements.

Socialist party leaders have agreed to postpone this political debate until after the local and regional elections on May 22. But, in spite of this, the mass media has already chosen its frontrunners: Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba and Carme Chacón.

The first directs the Home Office. He started his political career in Felipe Gonzalez’s governments where he was minister of education and government spokesman. Rubalcaba belongs to the Spanish socialist generation of 1980s.

Currently, Carme Chacón is minister of defence. She is part of the new socialist generation which won the leadership of the PSOE in 2000. During her political career she has also been minister of housing. She caught the attention of the media because the start of her term as defence minister coincided with her pregnancy. This came to be seen as a symbol of the modernisation of politics in a country where the armed forces are predominantly seen as an institution based on conservative values.

Importantly, both are strong candidates because their work is seen in a positive light by citizens. Polls show that Rubalcaba and Chacón are the most appreciated ministers in government. In the most recent survey by the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research, individuals were asked to value members of the government on a ten point scale. Pérez Rubalcaba got, on average, 5.3, whereas Carme Chacón obtained, on average, 4.5. In sum, they are popular and well-known.

Moreover, both politicians are a threat to Mariano Rajoy, the conservative People’s Party prime ministerial candidate, of whom citizens hold a more negative view. In the survey mentioned above, he obtained an average of only 3.2 on the ten point scale. In fact, he is the only Spanish opposition leader who has never obtained a higher evaluation than the prime minister.

So, whereas the socialist party looks to institute a more democratic process to renew its leadership, the People’s Party is looking somewhat overconfident in its electoral expectations.