Zapatero calls convention to elect new Socialist leader as Rubalcaba keeps his own counsel

Candidate suffers painful defeat after failing to distance himself from government's economic policies

Recovering from his party's biggest defeat since Spain's transition to democracy, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced Monday that the Socialists will hold a convention in February to elect a new leader.

Zapatero said that no candidacies for his replacement were discussed at Monday's weekly meeting of the Socialist executive committee. Basque regional premier Patxi López, once tipped to be next in line to become the party leader, has said that he won't run for the secretary general's post at the party's meeting - provisionally scheduled for the first week in February - according to inside sources.

The prime minister, who is the party's secretary general, said back in July that he would be stepping down from the party's leadership when he announced that he wouldn't be running for a third term.

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"I think all Spaniards know that we were up against hurricane-force winds in these elections," Zapatero said. The Socialists lost 59 seats in Congress, the party's most devastating defeat since 1977.

Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, who lost the race to the Popular Party's Mariano Rajoy, assumed full responsibility for the election débâcle. However, he told the Socialist leadership that the party "has a solid platform" to assume the reins of the main opposition party.

Around 500 of the faithful had gathered at the Socialist Party's headquarters in Madrid on Sunday night to monitor the election results. Few had any illusions about the fact that the party would spend the next legislature in opposition, but as the count came in, and the scale of the defeat became clear, the gathering began to fall silent.

The hush lifted briefly for a few moments when Rubalcaba came into the room at fifteen minutes past midnight, but he quickly silenced the cheers.

Some in the room were surprised that Pérez Rubalcaba was not accompanied on the podium by Zapatero, but colleagues explained that he had told the outgoing prime minister that he would prefer to speak alone.

The man who had run a spirited, but doomed, campaign to reduce the Popular Party's lead in the polls, or to win over the third of the electorate who were still undecided ahead of Sunday's election, spoke for just three minutes.

He had little to say: he had already personally congratulated Mariano Rajoy, and wished him "luck" in the years ahead as prime minister. He then thanked the "seven million Spaniards" who had voted for the Socialists. Finally, he said that he had asked Zapatero in his capacity as party secretary general to convene a conference "as soon as possible."

"The Socialists have not had a good result," said Pérez Rubalcaba, "but we thank everybody for their support, which has meant a great deal. I thank you from my heart," he added, struggling to hold his emotions in check. "We will continue to live up to the expectations placed on us, and we will lead the opposition in accordance with our values and on the basis of the commitment to defend the interests of Spain," he continued, to warm applause.

Once a promising sprinter, 60-year-old Rubalcaba showed himself more than capable of staying the course as a long-distance runner after accepting the candidacy from the party in June, effectively making an immediate start to his campaign, even before resigning from his dual government roles as interior minister and Zapatero's deputy prime minister.

Rubalcaba made an energetic start to the campaign proper, but it was always clear that the best he hoped to achieve was simply to reduce the Popular Party's more than 15-percentage-point lead, and perhaps to prevent the conservatives from winning an absolute majority. His personal approval rating bested Rajoy's in some polls, but he was unable to distance himself sufficiently from the Zapatero administration's policies and failure to tackle the country's deep economic woes.

Over the last five months Rubalcaba has sought to paint Rajoy as a leader who will destroy the public health service and cut education spending, but he lost the only debate between the two candidates, speaking as though his opponent was already in office.

"We must protect workers and the unemployed and I believe you are not going to do that," the Socialist said in the televised debate.

As Spaniards struggled with towering household debt and a one-in-five unemployment rate, Rajoy's restrained campaign benefited from the Socialists' mistakes. Rubalcaba has also been criticized in some quarters for appealing to the left-wing vote, clearly trying to woo supporters of the United Left.

The electorate credits Rubalcaba with having worked hard behind the scenes for many years on some of Spain's toughest problems, such as cracking down on the Basque separatist group ETA, which declared an end to its four-decade armed struggle in October.

The question now is whether Rubalcaba will be able to, or will want to, hold on to his job. His rival for the position when Zapatero announced he would not be running in the election in June was Carme Chacón, the 40-year-old defense minister, who stepped aside in a move widely interpreted as clearing the way for her to make a bid for party secretary once Rubalcaba met electoral defeat.

Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba on election night at PSOE headquarters in Madrid.
Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba on election night at PSOE headquarters in Madrid.ULY MARTÍN
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