The Socialist Party now has an official candidate to challenge the Popular Party's Mariano Rajoy for the job of prime minister in elections that will take place at the latest in March 2012. Outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba launched his election campaign after being formally declared on Saturday the governing Socialist Party's candidate in next year's vote.
Rubalcaba resigned Friday his dual posts as interior minister and the deputy to Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in order to focus on the campaign. Speaking at the party meeting called to make the official announcement, Rubalcaba signaled a leftward shift, echoing some of the criticisms voiced by the May 15 protest movement, which accuses politicians of serving the interests of bankers and financial markets.
Despite trailing the conservative Popular Party (PP) by some 14 points in surveys, Rubalcaba made it clear that he intends to fight the campaign vigorously, saying that this was what the 11 million people who voted for the Socialist Party in 2008 expected. In short, Rubalcaba has no intention of merely trying to limit the damage to his party; he believes that he has the will, and the ideas, to still win the next election.
Rubalcaba's message was that he intends to fight the PP on the basis of arguments on how best to tackle the current crisis. He was at pains to point out that the PP, both in terms of its leadership and its supporters, are not the enemy, but rather an adversary. The enemy, he insisted, is the crisis itself and the inequality it is creating in Spanish society. It can only be hoped that his message will be heard by the Socialist Party, and by the PP, and that the coming months will see mutual respect between the groupings rather than the mud-slinging that has characterized the PP's term in opposition.
Rubalcaba's speech included both generalities and some specific measures. The shift leftward, albeit a moderate one, was clear. He said that his priority is to create employment, along with measures for a more equitable distribution of wealth, as well as improvements to the country's democracy.
Among the proposals clearly designed to woo the party's leftwing supporters was his suggestion that part of the banks' profits should go toward job creation, while inheritance tax should be reintroduced, albeit fine-tuned so that it is the country's super-wealthy - who have so far been largely unaffected by the crisis - which bears the brunt, rather than the middle classes. He also said that he would look into electoral reform, a key demand of the 15-M movement. The Socialist Party must learn from the mistakes of the past, said Rubalcaba, while defending the measures taken by the government to address the crisis.
In short, the former education and interior minister - and government spokesman under two different administrations - has so far given the impression that he is a credible candidate. The PP's efforts to portray him as some kind of red under the bed have proved unsuccessful; the longer Rubalcaba keeps his speeches in line with the one he delivered on Saturday, the greater his chances of capturing more votes in the general election.
That said, the Socialists and their candidate have a long way to go if they are to improve their standing in the polls. The party will be hoping that Rubalcaba can generate trust among the electorate, and set in motion a gradual recovery. Nevertheless, the electorate believes that mistakes have been made by this government and attributes part of the blame to Rubalcaba. His task now is to convince people that he will put his words into action. He will also have to explain why he did not manage to implement the proposals he is now talking about while he was in government.
The game is now on, the only question is when the elections will take place.