The disastrous management of a local issue — a censure motion against the mayor of Ponferrada — has turned into a major headache for Socialist Party leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba.
The Socialist councilor who became mayor of the town in León province last Friday thanks to support from a convicted sex offender has decided to go rogue and forego his own party membership rather than give up his seat, as central headquarters has said it wants him to do.
Last Friday, the joint vote of the Socialists (PSOE) and an independent councilor named Ismael Álvarez ousted the conservative mayor and gave control of the town to Samuel Folgueral, of the PSOE. But the move triggered a wave of public criticism because Álvarez is a former mayor who resigned in 2002 after being found guilty of abuse against a female councilor, Nevenka Fernández. The “Nevenka” case was a high-profile affair and memory of it is still fresh in the minds of residents of Ponferrada, a town of 68,000 and capital of El Bierzo, a mining area.
Shortly after the censure motion prospered, PSOE secretary general Rubalcaba ordered Folgueral to step down, even though central party headquarters had initially supported the political checkmate. “My final word is that he must resign; that’s all there is to it,” he said on the private station Telecinco in which he admitted that the whole affair had been “one mistake on top of another.”
Ponferrada is being used to settle internal Socialist Party affairs”
“Either he leaves the mayor’s office or he leaves the PSOE. We will not have a Socialist mayor with support from a councilor who’s been convicted of sexual abuse,” said Rubalcaba in what was meant as a strong ultimatum. But for most of the weekend, the brand new mayor gave no indication that he was planning to resign, and party sources took it for granted that he would instead turn in his Socialist Party card to retain his hold on power. On Sunday afternoon, Folgueral did just that, while the seven other Socialist councilors in the local government also renounced their party membership.
“Ponferrada is being used to settle internal Socialist affairs,” said Folgueral in reference to the pressure being put on him by party headquarters at both the regional and national levels.
The Socialist Party had insisted that Folgueral’s resignation would only be temporary, but legal experts said that if he stepped down, he might not make it back into the mayor’s office.
Folgueral had been under pressure from central party leaders and from the regional branch of Castilla y León, whose leader Julio Villarrubio is now being widely blamed for having allowed the deal with Ismael Álvarez to go through. For his part, Rubalcaba has claimed that he was not aware that the vote would entail any association with a sex offender, although locally the political deal was a well-known fact at least two weeks ahead of time, to the extent that a group of local residents had signed a petition against it.
The vote of no confidence was aimed against Carlos López Riesco, of the Popular Party (PP), who had been in power for 11 years and was once Ismael Álvarez’s right-hand man when the latter was mayor. Following the Nevenka scandal, Álvarez stayed away from politics for a few years before returning in 2011 with a new party that he founded: Independientes Agrupados de Ponferrada (IAP).
The two men, who once worked closely together, have since become bitter enemies.
Despite his conviction, social support for Álvarez remained strong in Ponferrada
As a matter of fact, López Riesco, the deposed mayor, believes that the censure motion against him was a case of “personal revenge” from Ismael Álvarez, who wanted to run for mayor when he returned to politics in 2011. To mount a serious challenge, however, Álvarez would have had to run with the PP. By then, however, his former aide had been in the mayor’s seat for several years, and did not feel like going back to being a deputy.
Álvarez then decided to create his own party, IAP, believing that he could still gain significant local support. Some voters still remember him as the man who transformed Ponferrada through an aggressive policy of construction that resulted in a plethora of new buildings, roads and roundabouts during his mandate (1995-2002).
In the 2011 local elections, IAP obtained 6,000 votes, enough to take away López Riesco’s absolute majority. And even though Álvarez backed him long enough to make him mayor, day-to-day work has since become “ungovernable.” This year’s budget has not yet been approved due to a lack of agreement, and the opposition has said that the town is essentially “inoperative.” This, say the local Socialists and Álvarez, is the reason behind their censure vote against the mayor.
In Ponferrada, some 400 kilometers from Madrid, not everyone seems to view what happened as such a scandal. This weekend, there were many resigned comments regarding Ismael Álvarez’s sudden support for the Socialist Party after a lifetime as a conservative.
“He’s already paid his dues,” said one resident in reference to his conviction for harassing Nevenka Fernández, a councilor with whom he maintained a romantic relationship in the late 1990s. When she decided to break up, Álvarez began humiliating her in public and continued to privately request sexual encounters, the Supreme Court found in a 2002 ruling.
Despite the conviction, social support for Álvarez remained strong in Ponferrada, where some saw him as a victim of feminism. His deputy at the time, López Riesco, was a staunch supporter of Álvarez in the early days following the court ruling.
The Ponferrada showdown is only the latest in a series of authority issues for Rubalcaba, whose leadership finally seemed to be settled following months of internal debate.
The Socialists, who obtained disastrous results at the 2011 general elections on the back of the economic crisis which started under the rule of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, were just getting down to the business of making constructive proposals with a view to the next general vote. But in just two weeks Rubalcaba has had to deal with a schism in Catalonia, where the Socialist branch decided to support the region’s “right to decide” on the issue of sovereignty, and face down Galician Socialists who want to bypass party rules and consult grassroots members over the choice of their next leader via primaries. Madrid Socialist leader Tomás Gómez spoke out in support of the Galician rebels, saying: “I applaud what the Galician Socialists have done. More democracy is always good.”
But not necessarily for Rubalcaba, at this very moment.