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 23%.
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.
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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.
The economist online