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Looking forward to the future, now

Rajoy must show just where he stands, while Zapatero needs to make a final exit

The PP has achieved a resounding electoral victory at the expense of the Socialist Party, though some of the latter's voters turned to the leftists of IU and UPyD. Meanwhile, regional nationalist parties in both Catalonia and the Basque Country also gained seats. The new legislature will be marked by a heavy PP majority and a more plural, if divided, opposition.

The victory has been that of Mariano Rajoy, and of the group who supported him in 2008, when he decided to distance himself from the previous strategy of truculent, aggressive opposition to Zapatero: a strategy being pushed by broad sectors of the PP and by almost all of its attendant media, which began calling for a change of leadership in the party. So it is that now, owing no outstanding political debts to anyone, Rajoy prepares to move into the prime ministerial residence, with a rare opportunity in hand to renew the PP, cleansing it of ultramontane, extreme-right elements and making it comparable to other European conservative parties.

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Rajoy's election win celebrations cut short by sobering tasks ahead

On the very eve of the election, the Spanish economy tottered further in the direction of bailout. All the more reason for Zapatero and Rajoy to a make a joint, unequivocal statement as soon as possible, to the effect that Spain is capable of a smooth, seamless changing of the guard in the economic area. It is important, too, that the new parliament be constituted with all dispatch, for the formal investiture of the new government. Rajoy must promptly make it clear who the EU's economic interlocutor will be, in these days of ongoing financial turbulence, so that he can begin his work before the new government is formed.

Rajoy's campaign rhetoric has been nebulous, aimed both at maintaining the cohesion of his heterogeneous electorate and at avoiding the mobilization of Socialist voters. But a line that has proved an effective one for winning elections, may well become an obstacle to governing effectively. A rapid squandering of the political capital the voters have given him may be a disturbing prospect not only for the PP, but also for the country as a whole, which is facing a crisis that is going to demand further sacrifices. Rajoy has said nothing specific about these sacrifices during the campaign, focusing only on the virtues that will supposedly result from a mere change of leadership. But the gravity of the situation demands that he put ambiguity behind him and reveal his program as soon as possible, and name the Cabinet that will carry it out.

Zapatero must step down

In most elections nobody is really the winner, but somebody is always the loser. More than any other factor, it has been Zapatero's inability to rise to the challenge presented by the crisis that has catapulted Mariano Rajoy into the prime-ministerial residence.

Just as it was not Rajoy who lost the elections in 2004, but Aznar, on this occasion the loser is not Rubalcaba, but Zapatero. The consequence of a landslide defeat of this nature can be no other than his immediate resignation as leader of the Socialist Party, and the celebration of a convention to restore the structures of a party undermined by a shortage of spirit and an excess of shiftiness on the part of its present secretary-general.

That the prime minister has no sense of when to step down is something that is now clear to all of us. He called elections four months early, causing an instability in political life that will be remembered as a textbook example of how not to do things.

He bade farewell to the parliament before the summer vacations, only to come back in September calling for a constitutional amendment, arranged with the PP but not with his own party. His decision to stay on at the head of his party, though not running for re-election as prime minister, bred conspiracy theories and dissent within the party, as revealed in the statements of his defense minister, Carme Chacón, whom he first encouraged to try for the candidacy and then obliged to withdraw, all behind the back of eventual prime-ministerial candidate Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba.

This is why Zapatero's proposal of staying at the head of the PSOE for several more months in order to direct the party's internal transition, is unacceptable after an electoral failure as resounding as Sunday's. His family and his house in León await him, for a well-earned rest.

Squandered political capital

The PSOE has been this country's most important political group since the end of the Franco regime, governing during 21 of the 33 years gone by since the Constitution was approved in 1978, and being responsible for far-reaching changes in Spanish society. The most relevant of these was the construction of a modern left, analogous to progressive parties in the rest of Europe. The results of Sunday's elections show that a great part of this political capital has, in recent years, been squandered senselessly and needlessly.

Naturally, Zapatero's record is far from all negative. The withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq (if unnecessarily abrupt), the recognition of homosexual marriages, the significant advances in certain areas of social welfare, the active crackdown on gender-violence crimes and the gender-parity laws all figure largely among his achievements, along with the ambiguous surrender of ETA which, in any case, is a political achievement shared by many others, notably Rubalcaba.

José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero will do well to step down from his responsibilities as head of the PSOE now, and not next week or next month, allowing his fellow Socialists to put their house in order before the storms that are sure to arrive this winter are whipped up into tornados.

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