Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba may be an old, familiar face to his fellow party members, but his first speech as Socialist prime-ministerial candidate for the next general elections had a decidedly new ring to it. The Socialists' eternal number two (he was a key official in Felipe González's governments as well as being José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's deputy prime minister until last week) finally stepped into the limelight with rhetoric that broke with traditional rally talk, both in content and form.
Rubalcaba's "back-to-basics" speech caused waves of enthusiasm in a crowd that was in desperate need of something to cheer, considering all surveys point to a major Socialist defeat in the March 2012 elections due to their perceived mismanagement of the economic crisis.
"Finally, somebody with 'seny'," said one of those present, María Carbó, using a Catalan expression for common sense.
Zapatero himself had created great expectations by announcing that the candidate's speech would create "a before and afterwards" for the nation. Earlier in the week Rubalcaba had offered previews of his campaign program, such as greater economic responsibility for banks, national standardized tests for public school teachers, greater central oversight of out-of-control city planning, and more money for the debt-encumbered public health system.
On Saturday, all these issues came together in a one-hour speech that signaled a turn to the left from a member of a Socialist government that will be remembered for controversial spending cuts aimed at curbing Spain's deficit to avoid a Greek-style bailout.
By stepping down as interior minister and deputy prime minister last Friday, Rubalcaba became free to distance himself from these austerity measures, arguing that by next year Spain will be on the road to economic recovery and ready for a new kind of policy.
In form, Rubalcaba's speech deliberately avoided the usual clichés and crowd-rousing phrases, and he made a point of not attacking the main opposition Popular Party (PP), saying only that "they are not our enemies but our adversaries."
This new, non-confrontational strategy was one of several nods to the 15-M citizen movement that is protesting against, among other things, Spain's brand of confrontational two-party politics.
Instead, the man hoping to move into La Moncloa when Zapatero departs presented himself as a statesman concerned with the issues that people really care about, such as jobs, the economy, equality and democratic politics. He said that in the aftermath of the real estate crash, the future of the economy lies in energy, the environment and caring for dependent people. He also lashed out at the rich and powerful by announcing taxes for the very wealthy, and made a passionate defense of the European Union, going as far as to suggest the creation of a European Moody's ratings agency.
"The problems are large, but we need to address them with more democracy, not less; with more politics, not less; with more Europe, not less," he said. "Let's stop complaining about American ratings agencies and let's create a European one."
Zapatero now has to appoint a new government spokesman- possibly current Cabinet Office secretary Ramón Jáuregui- and a new interior minister, perhaps Antonio Camacho, now the secretary of state for security. The prime minister warned that the changes would be "prudent and moderate," and Rubalcaba shares this view, sources familiar with the situation said.
"With just a few months to go before the elections, it is good for Alfredo's successor to be a person who is very familiar with the problems of a delicate ministry such as the interior ministry, and not waste time with the explanations that would be required for a minister from other areas. And the right person is Camacho," said the same sources.
Spain's banks replied on Saturday to the Socialist Party's Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. During a speech at a meeting to announce his official candidacy in the next general elections, the outgoing deputy prime minister said: "soon, very soon, we will have to ask the banks to put aside part of their profits to create jobs."
In response, the AEB Spanish Banking Association called on the government to implement programs that will "generate confidence."
The AEB said it "shares" Rubalcaba's "concern" about unemployment, but suggested that he work on "economic programs to create sustained and strong economic growth" that will lower the cost of borrowing on the international markets.
Rubalcaba's speech was also criticized by the center-right Catalan CiU nationalist coalition. Josep Antoni Duran accused the Socialist candidate of "desperate populism" and trying to create a smokescreen to attract the leftwing vote.
At the same time, the speech angered the communist-led United Left party. Gaspar Llamazares, the coalition's congressional spokesman, issued a Tweet saying: "In 24 hours, he has gone from free-market policies to criticizing Zapatero." Llamazares accused Rubalcaba of adopting a "leftwing disguise while his party imposes the banks' policies."