Spanish socialists choose party veteran Rubalcaba as new leader

Mon, Feb 6, 2012, 00:00

THE SPANISH Socialist Party (PSOE), severely wounded after its crushing defeat by the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) in last November’s elections, chose a leader at the weekend. But the average Spanish voter could be forgiven for finding it difficult to tell that anything has changed.

Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba (60) beat his only rival for the leadership, Carme Chacón (41), by a mere 22 votes out of 600.

But Mr Rubalcaba is the same leader who presided over the party’s recent results – the worst in its history. The PSOE’s toxically unpopular outgoing Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, had controversially appointed him to lead the party into the elections from last August.

What is more, for many Spaniards, Mr Rubalcaba seems to have been around forever. He was a minister in the glory days of Felipe González’s huge majorities in the 1980s, and he has almost always been in cabinet since.

As interior minister for Mr Zapatero, his supporters give him credit for achieving an apparent end to Eta’s terrorist campaign in the Basque Country. Others say he was simply lucky to be in that position when such an outcome was inevitable.

Youth and style were on the side of Ms Chacón, but the lack of substance behind her vaguely leftist rhetoric probably denied her a widely expected victory.

Mr Rubalcaba faces a daunting challenge. The PSOE is not just a party; it is part of modern Spanish history, the only major political organisation of left or right to survive the 40-year Francisco Franco dictatorship at national level.

The PSOE has also been the leading player in Spanish politics since Franco’s death. It has been in government for almost 22 years in the past three decades, and is the prime architect of the country’s remarkable modernisation.

But Mr Zapatero’s disastrous misjudgment of the economic crisis has left the PSOE stripped of power on an unprecedented scale at national, regional and municipal levels. Even left-wing bastions such as Andalusia have fallen to the right.

It is in Andalusia that Mr Rubalcaba will face his first test, in the form of elections to its autonomous parliament on March 25th.

A poll published last Friday showed the Andalusian PSOE trailing 12 per cent behind the PP.

The leadership election was held in the Andalusian capital, Seville, in the hope of boosting regional party support. But since the Andalusian PSOE leadership supported Ms Chacón, the outcome may have the opposite effect.

Yesterday, both Mr Rubalcaba and Ms Chacón appealed for unity.

Mr Rubalcaba’s new executive won the support of 80 per cent of the delegates, many of whom must have voted for Ms Chacón. But she had already told Mr Rubalcaba she would not join his team. With such a narrow margin between them, the new leadership can hardly be considered stable.

However, the most serious danger for the PSOE may not be internal disputes, but the fact that neither candidate seemed to offer anything new to an electorate that is disenchanted with the party.