The preparations for the electoral campaign have begun. On the left there is not much room for manoeuvre. The candidates are well-known from previous campaigns. As things are the winner will have to face the biggest crisis the country has ever experienced. So these are not elections full of hope like they used to be.
On September 26th the Spanish president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, made the official announcement of the general election to be held on November 20th.
He thus began the process of dissolution of parliament which will produce a new government in the first weeks of December.
In the end this last Zapatero government was cut short by about 6 months, however much the president had declared that his goal, despite the huge economic difficulties of the country, was to use the full term allowed for his government.
Social pressure, the worsening of the international economic crisis, and the major reverses suffered by the PSOE (the centre left in the government) in local and regional elections on the 22nd. of May this year, have all become the triggers that made Zapatero back off from his intentions and call early elections, once he had decided not to offer himself as a candidate again.
The PP (the Spanish centre-right) has spent 7 years in opposition.
The first PSOE administration was during a period of strong economic growth, marked by an improvement of social rights initiated by Zapatero, and tension between the two major parties was focused on the debate about the form of the Spanish state (especially the incorporation of Catalunya by a new law) and the negotiations with ETA.
In this second government however the extremely difficult economic situation has been the axis around which all political activity has gravitated, both in parliament and in society.
The powerful economic crisis, which has passed through stages of extreme discomfort internationally has taken different forms in each country. In Spain the destruction of jobs, with a consequent very high demand for unemployment benefit, is the problem that has most concerned both the public and the political class, who are losing popularity and credibility in the eyes of the people.
The Centre for Social Investigations (CIS) for the country carries out a periodic inquiry into the overall political situation and the main concerns of the public. In its most recent study in July unemployment was seen as the biggest problem by more than 60% of people questioned. And this is not all: in Spain the level of unemployment has reached more than 20%, double the average level in the Eurozone, putting the country in the fateful and outstanding position of being the leader in unemployment in Europe.
The struggle against the lack of work has become a real national obsession. The figures of the CIS are sufficiently graphic now to draw a depressing portrait of Spanish society, especially for young people (with 45% unemployed), which according to the sociological report Jóvenes Españoles 2010 (Spanish Youth 2010) published by SM, are becoming resigned to being the first generation for a very long time to have lower standards of living than their parents, and to begin to see emigration as the only escape route for the short-term.
The international financial instability and the damage to sovereign debts are complicating this difficult task even more. The markets are putting a tight squeeze on Spanish debt; and people are having an intensive course in understanding concepts which were once distant and abstract, like the vaunted ‘risk premium’ (the supplement demanded by investors to buy soveriegn debt relative to that of Germany). This has become an obligatory concept to understand because of the enormous media interest which draws the attention of investors to Spanish debt, while the UE tries to square the circle in its economic policy.
In this context of enormous difficulties, which have depressed the public, the two parties with a chance of governing are putting forward veteran candidates with plenty of experience in public administration.
The likely winner is represented by Mariano Rajoy. Leader of the PP since ex-president Aznar raised him to the top of the party. At 56 and having lost two elections to Zapatero, he appears in the opinion polls with an enormous advantage over the socialist candidate Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the ex-vice president for the last two months or so.
Rubalacaba is the choice of the PSOE to try to moderate what is considered a certain defeat due to the destructive effects of the crisis.
At 60 and with a long political career (as the key member in both socialist governments, of Felipe González and Zapatero), Rubalcaba is a survivor, a convincing speaker who is centering the preparations for his campaign on two essential points: to explain why Spain is in the situation it is in, and to build a case that the PSOE has been the “true architect of the Welfare State”, as he put it in one of his recent meetings in Catalunya.
The immediate response of the PP is clear: They argue that Rubalcaba has been the key member in this unpopular government about to end, and he isn’t able to establish a coherent alternative capable of taking Spain in a different direction.
In this area the strategy of the PP is becoming less explicit when they put forward their programme for governing, knowing that the attrition suffered by the PSOE offers sufficient inertia for Rajoy to easily reach Moncloa, and without needing to offer too many indications about his plans for creating employment and improving the Spanish economy.
It is exactly on this subject that the debate is centred. The strong crisis is putting the viability of the Spanish system in question, symbolized by the recent extremely rapid reform of the Constitution (agreed by both parties) to impose a ceiling on government spending within the essential rules of Spanish law. Seen like this, it could be thought that all the basic ideas which have been taken for granted until now, are in quarantine: the structure of public administration, the management of its budgets, the educational system, the survival of the health service and the long-term ability to maintain pensions.
So the candidates for the next government are focussing almost all their public debates on the economy. Rubalcaba has even claimed that the PP, by the use of further cuts, is preparing a “ dismantling of the welfare state”, while Rajoy denies most of it, promising that his government will be “coherent and well thought-out”, and that it will not alter the essential supports of the welfare of the country.
Both politicians, with a thousand battles behind them, know that the present time is extraordinarily tricky, and are doing all they can to present a reassuring image at a time when politicians are enormously unpopular, which according to the CIS has risen to become the third most important problem recognized by the public.
Still, the starting pistol has been fired. The run-up to the campaign has begun. A run-up which as the current way of doing things shows, will be played very much in the virtual arena.
The parties are putting a lot of effort into creating internet sites for their candidates (rubalcaba.net and rajoy.es), where they try to show a familiar image of their candidate, with a strong paternalistic flavour, because they are convinced that in difficult times Spanish society prefers personalities who are experienced and mature to lead the country.
The PSOE is making an effort to say that “there is a party” , which can still succeed in reducing the lead that the PP has over them in the opinion polls; which reaches as much as 15 percentage points in some polls, and would give Rajoy an overall majority as well as almost all the power in government since his party achieved a crushing victory in the recent local elections on the 22nd of May.
If things work out like this the leader of the PP will succeed to government at the 3rd attempt, which both Gonzalez and Aznar did, as he is fond of pointing out. He would gain enormous power to manage the deepest crisis that Spain has experienced in recent decades.
(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)