Spain’s Socialists

Why Spain’s left is in a funk

The party leader struggles to put the government’s unpopularity to use

Mar 23rd 2013 | MADRID |From the print edition

ALFREDO PÉREZ RUBALCABA, leader of Spain’s beleaguered opposition
Socialists, is a man with a noose around his neck. It is slowly
tightening. More than a year after his party lost power its poll ratings
remain below those of Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP). They are five
points down on their November 2011 election result, standing at just

This is remarkable. Spain’s economy has tumbled deeper into recession
under the premiership of Mr Rajoy. A further 700,000 people have joined
the dole queues, pushing unemployment to 26.2% of the workforce. And as
the value of their homes falls further, frightened Spanish consumers are
keeping purses zipped tight. Many must raid savings to get by.

Wage earners and pensioners are all getting poorer. Of the more needy,
1.9m unemployed do not receive state benefits. And, as Spaniards digest
tax rises and spending cuts, protests from health, education and other
public workers are a daily occurrence.

Mr Rajoy’s PP, meanwhile, is engulfed in a corruption scandal. The man
he appointed party treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, hid €22m ($28.5m) in
Switzerland. Newspapers allege he ran a secret party slush-fund with
senior PP noses in the trough. Promises of green pastures further down
the road of austerity have yet to convince voters. The PP’s poll ratings
have fallen from 45% to 24% since the election.

So why are the Socialists not storming ahead? Many Spaniards blame them
for the current mess. A once buoyant economy crashed on the watch of
José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a Socialist prime minister. Mr Rubalcaba,
as deputy prime minister, was associated with the debacle. The party,
meanwhile, is digging its own grave. Its Catalan wing rebelled in
parliament recently, backing Catalonia’s “right to decide” on its
future. That scares Socialist voters in other parts of Spain. But Mr
Rubalcaba’s opposition to the idea puts off potential supporters in
Catalonia, where Mr Zapatero anchored his victories. A messy town-hall
coup in northern Ponferrada, which saw local Socialists ally with the
convicted protagonist of a nasty sexual harassment case, showed the
party in further disarray.

Mr Rubalcaba himself remains a problem. He has clung to the top job
despite leading the party to an historic defeat in 2011. The 61-year-old
veteran not only bears the Zapatero stigma, but also that of a minister
in Felipe González’s 1990s governments. He is hardly a bright new broom
for jaundiced left-wing voters. Some party leaders say so openly. “Many
others agree with me,” said Tomas Gómez, a prominent rebel who heads the
Madrid party branch.

Mr Gómez may fancy himself as a candidate for the premiership, as does
Patxi López, the popular former Basque regional president. Better bets
are a former defence minister, Carme Chacón, aged 42, or one of the
party’s parliamentary bosses, Eduardo Madina. Ms Chacón was narrowly
beaten for the leadership by Mr Rubalcaba at a conference last year. She
broke ranks with her Catalan colleagues to abstain in the vote on the
“right to decide” in a tactical bid to stay in the running. Mr Madina is
just 37, yet still experienced. He also wins sympathy for overcoming a
terrorist bomb attack that blew off part of his leg. But he might not
yet want the job.

Analysts predict that the economy will shrink by 1.5% this year;
recovery in 2014 is uncertain. The European Commission expects
unemployment will still be stuck above 26% next year. Elections will
probably be held at the end of 2015. Austerity-exhausted Spaniards may
demand change. But if the Socialists want power, they probably need a
new leader.

From the print edition: Europe


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