Inherited leadership

Politicians who make the step up when their mentors step down face skepticism from the public, who didn't vote for them

José Antonio Griñán embraces his successor as Andalusia premier, Susana Díaz.
José Antonio Griñán embraces his successor as Andalusia premier, Susana Díaz. Julián Rojas

In May 2011, as he stood poised to win yet another absolute majority, Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón granted EL PAÍS an interview in which he confirmed his desire to tackle the new challenges ahead and to try to live up to citizens' expectations. Asked about a newspaper survey showing that nearly 50 percent of respondents thought he would leave before the end of his third term in office (to become a government minister, should the Popular Party win the November 2011 elections), Ruiz-Gallardón asserted that his only plans were to run the city.

The reporter insisted. "So you will stay on until the end of your term?"

"That is absolutely my forecast," the incumbent replied confidently. "I don't think there is any position in the government of Spain that would bring me greater satisfaction than my current job."

Barely six months later, Ruiz-Gallardón walked out of City Hall to become Spain's new justice minister. His replacement, Ana Botella, who had been his first deputy, soon became a target of constant criticism from a broad section of society that feels she was never voted in by the people.

In March 2012, a few days before scheduled elections in Andalusia, regional premier José Antonio Griñán — who was also secretary general of the Andalusian Socialist Party — told the media that he had no further plans beyond remaining in his posts.

"Do you wish to remain secretary of the Andalusian Socialists no matter what happens on March 25?" asked a reporter, in reference to opinion polls that showed the incumbent Socialists were set to lose the regional elections.

Ana Botella, Susana Díaz and Ignacio González all inherited power

"In principle that is my only intention," he replied.

Yet a year-and-a-half later (after managing to hold on to power in coalition with the United Left) Griñán stepped down from both the premiership and party leadership, citing personal reasons. He effectively left both positions to his trusted aide, Susana Díaz, who became Andalusia's first female premier in early September after the assembly confirmed the choice. Her main talent, according to most media reports, is her ability to keep a tight rein on the regional party.

Ana Botella, Susana Díaz, Alberto Fabra (the Valencian premier, who replaced Francisco Camps) and Ignacio González (Madrid premier after Esperanza Aguirre bowed out of politics) are the four best-known examples of political leaders who "inherited" their positions from their mentors, rather than being voted in. And while they may struggle with that stigma, analysts point out that there is nothing undemocratic about it: in Spain's parliamentary democracy, voters never choose a candidate directly, but rather vote for whole party lists that are drafted by the parties themselves. The name at the top of the list is the one that becomes mayor, regional premier or prime minister, but the parties decide internally who that someone will be.

As the political scientist César Molinas points out, these "heirs" are previously confirmed into their posts by the local council, regional assembly or national parliament. So why do so many citizens feel uncomfortable with this system?

José Antonio Gómez Yáñez, a sociologist and faculty member at Madrid's Carlos III University, believes this negative feeling derives from the way parties make up their campaign lists: no primaries are held, and leaders simply co-opt favorite aides as their running mates. This suggests that the list-making process is manifestly improvable, especially at the second and third rungs of power.

But there is a second element that is angering voters, and it is clearly reflected in the statements by Ruiz-Gallardón and Griñán reported earlier in this story: there is a breach of the contract between the candidate and the people who voted for them. Gómez Yáñez says that votes are not free, and entail a high emotional cost for citizens. People really think about who they're going to cast their ballots for, and they identify with their choices. It is hard to forgive these leaders for running out on the job after earning the voters' trust. This theory seems to hold true particularly when it comes to parties in the opposition.

But even this does not explain why those who take their place have to deal with such a widespread perception of illegitimacy. Sometimes the situation is resolved with a new election to confirm popular support for the new leaders, but the process can go wrong — witness the cases of Gordon Brown in Britain and Mario Monti in Italy. It is worth remembering that Italy's current savior, Enrico Letta — the number-two man inside the Democratic Party — assumed power after the resignation of Pier Luigi Bersani.

Spanish voters have no power to choose an electoral candidate

Molinas insists that it is undemocratic to question the legitimacy of these "heirs," but José María Maravall, a sociologist and former minister in the Socialist administration of Felipe González, offers a very different explanation for these feelings of rejection. "The chief defining trait of these 'number twos' is an implacable attitude that enabled them to eliminate all other rivals on their way to the top. Sometimes they are unknown individuals whose main merit is to be always waiting in the shadows, holding a very sharp knife in their hands. They lack significant popular support, and their strategies are organic. Susana Díaz has the same career profile as José Acosta

[a historical Socialist leader in Madrid who was a deputy for eight terms, between 1979 and 2008]," he says.

This feeling that the second politician on the party list is worse than the first reflects a very Spanish feeling, says Gómez Yáñez, even if it does not always turn out to be true. History is full of illustrious "heirs" who made history, such as Gordon Brown, who shone with a light of his own independently from Tony Blair; or Winston Churchill, who was installed in Downing Street when Neville Chamberlain was unable to form a government; Charles de Gaulle was replaced by none other than Georges Pompidou.

Indeed, the second person on the party list need not be any worse than the number one. Certainly few people feel that way about Alberto Fabra, who replaced Francisco Camps at the helm of the Valencia region after the latter became involved in the Gürtel kickbacks-for-contracts scandal.

Sometimes lack of trust depends on the reasons why the leader stepped down. Elisa de la Nuez, a state attorney, believes that it is important to distinguish between the levels of government where the substitution takes place. "In the case of the mayors, it seems to me like a more noticeable fraud," she says. "It is true that people vote for lists, but we all know that in municipal elections you're clearly voting for a mayor."

Irene Lozano, a deputy for the centrist party Unión Progreso y Democracia (UPyD), says that there is a difference between mechanisms to prevent a power vacuum when an unexpected event forces the leader to step down, and strategic moves made exclusively "to hold on to power" and to benefit the party. "It was a known fact that Gallardón would step down as mayor and that Ana Botella would have lost elections. That was a party move. The case of Esperanza Aguirre and the Madrid premiership is less obvious, but not that of Susana Díaz, who has been given a few years of visibility free of charge so the party can keep earning points in Andalusia instead of starting again from scratch. It is impossible not to get a sense that it was fixed. Parties make their moves to suit themselves, independently of what the voters want. It's part of the degradation of politics."

Instead, UPyD supports open lists so that voters can better express their preferences and award greater legitimacy to candidates who get the most ballots. But former minister Maravall is skeptical about this option. "In the Senate, the representatives who get the most votes are those whose surnames begin with one of the first letters of the alphabet. People don't have the patience to read full lists."

It is true that people need faces and characters to identify with. Certainly, voters have no time to make a balanced assessment of each party's campaign platform, as Samuel L. Popkin explains in his book The Reasoning Voter. People take shortcuts and select certain traits that include the leader's personality. A talent for persuasion, and even seduction, can prove vital to a leader. "This was clearly the case with Felipe González," explains a campaign expert.

The trouble with inherited political positions is that they have a domino effect. It may be that Alberto Fabra is much better than his predecessor Francisco Camps, but he in turn gave the keys of the mayor's office in Castellón to his faithful friend Alfonso Bataller, who was fifth on the party list in the last municipal elections, and who now clings on to the mayor's seat despite being investigated by the courts over the Gürtel case; he is even given the cold shoulder by some of his own party members.

Ignacio González, the Madrid premier after Esperanza Aguirre stepped down, is not known to have any protégés — yet. Until now he had been the eternal right-hand man. Will he and the others win the next elections in their own right, or will they be defeated at the polls despite all the support they had from their mentors? It remains to be seen.

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