Rubalcaba to heal party wounds as Socialists prepare for regional races

Intense battle for leadership of party was won by just a handful of votes

Critics of the new Socialist Party will no doubt be quick to point out that there are so many familiar faces that this is simply a continuation of the previous leadership of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. But Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba's team is quick to point out that change is on its way.

Rubalcaba won Saturday's race for the role of secretary general of the party "because he knew how to connect with majority sentiment among Socialist delegates and members who are asking for a credible change with substance, and a new and secure direction," says Elena Valenciano, the party's new number two.

By a margin of just 22 votes, Rubalcaba - Zapatero's deputy prime minister and interior chief - won the leadership race over former Defense Minister Carme Chacón at the Socialists' 38th party convention, held in Seville over the weekend. It was a bitter internal race filled with intense lobbying and reported pressure-mongering by both camps, according to complaints lodged by some of the delegates. Up until Saturday, the internal battle was too close to call, and many forecasted that the divisions would cause a deep rift in the party. Now it is up to Rubalcaba to heal the wounds and try to bring together the entire Socialist organization.But for Valenciano, the new secretary general has already pulled it off by winning the party's majority support in just 24 hours.

"There has been a great effort to integrate all the federations, and proof of that can be seen by looking at how Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba got 52 percent of the votes on Saturday and 80 percent backing for his entire leadership on Sunday. In other words, in just one day we garnered 30 points as a show of unity."José Bono, the former president of Congress and ex-regional premier in Castilla-La Mancha, also had some advice for the losing side.

"When I lost," he said in reference to his defeat to Zapatero in the 2000 secretary general race, "I called together my supporters and told them, 'We are now dissolved. Those who ask me for a position just because you supported me will only win my animosity'."Some of Chacón's supporters, however, feel that this was the Socialists' only chance to renew themselves by electing a younger, more vibrant leader than the 63-year-old Rubalcaba.

Tomás Gómez, the leader of the Madrid Socialist Party (PSM), whose decisions and visions are not always in line with those of the national leadership, said Chacón represented "change." On Friday night, his announcement to Madrid delegates that he would support the former defense minister set off alarms within the PSM, whose majority was reportedly backing Rubalcaba.

Electing the 40-year-old Chacón, Gómez told his people, is "not just inventing a new type of socialism, but instead showing how to initiate socialism all over again." By Monday, Gómez was licking his wounds but saying he would support Rubalcaba.

"We have to go on living without hate or vengeance, looking toward the future and with respect to rivalries because not all of us think alike," he told a television station. "I don't have any regrets about leaning toward Chacón."

Gómez now faces a tough race of his own with the PSM due to choose its new leadership within a month. One possible Gómez rival is Jaime Lissavetzky, the Socialist spokesman on the Madrid City Council and a Rubalcaba confidante. Gómez has said he will run for re-election.The Rubalcaba-Chacón rivalry has not only left bad blood in Madrid but also in Andalusia and Asturias, two regions where the Socialists are facing difficult races in the upcoming local elections.

In Andalusia, José Antonio Griñán, the Socialist premier, will be fighting to keep his seat on March 25 when he battles it out at the ballot box with the Popular Party (PP) regional leader Javier Arenas, who has had favorable showings in the polls. Although he never said it publicly, Griñán supported Chacón. And even though he knew Gríñán and his team were supporting his rival, Rubalcaba named him party president on Monday as a gesture to bring the two sides together.

"We are all pulling in the same direction," Griñán told reporters after his appointment.

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