An ongoing economic crisis with low growth, high levels of debt and unemployment: it was against this background of gloom that the Spanish Socialist prime minister announced in April that he would not be seeking a third term in office at the next election, then due to take place in March 2012.
“When I was elected head of the government in 2004, I thought that two parliamentary terms were a reasonable period to take charge of the country’s destiny. Two parliamentary terms, eight years, no more,” said José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
Zapatero’s popularity has been falling since the time in May last year when he introduced a programme of austerity to reduce public spending, bring down the deficit and calm the markets.
However, the biggest cut in social spending since Spain became a democracy came at a high political cost for the Socialists in power in Madrid.
The party was literally swept aside in municipal and regional elections in May this year, winning just 27 per cent of the vote. Its chief took the defeat – the most crushing in the Socialists’ history – on the chin.
“The results we know so far from the ballot indicate that the Socialist Party has clearly lost the elections today,” said the prime minister.
For the main opposition party, the PP or Partido Popular led by Mariano Rajoy, it was a dazzling victory. The right consolidated its traditional strongholds and robbed the Socialists of one of their most faithful regions. For Rajoy it was an endorsement of his strategy of not unveiling his programme for tackling the economic crisis. The only priority from that moment on for Rajoy was to demand early elections.
“This party will govern for everyone, in all the local institutions where it holds responsibility to govern, and if the Spanish want it, also in the national government for everyone,” said Rajoy.
For their part, the Socialists are preparing for battle under the leadership of Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. The former interior minister is the one best placed in the opinion polls thanks to his success against ETA.
“In this electoral campaign, nothing is settled and nothing is decided in advance. We must do something very important: convince millions of Spaniards to give us back their confidence,” he said.
According to one poll in July, Rubalcaba is the most popular leader in Spain, well ahead of Mariano Rajoy.
On the other hand, the same survey suggests 43 per cent of the Spanish would vote for the PP at a general election, ahead of the Socialists under Rubulcaba, on 36 per cent.
Victory might seem assured for the PP, though by what margin is uncertain. However, it comes against a background of widespread disillusionment with mainstream politics in general. 80 per cent are said to back the “15th May” movement, calling for reform of the electoral law that favours the two-party system.