Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba’s announcement on Monday of his decision to step down as secretary general of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and not run for office is the most logical step he could have taken following a new loss of votes at the European elections last Sunday.
Modern politics needs gestures and communication, and the worst thing that leaders of severely punished parties could do is to pretend that nothing happened, using the excuse that voters were only choosing European Parliament deputies.
Spain’s political forces chose national territory to confront one another, and that necessitates a commitment to the EU results. Credit is due to the Socialist leader for having come to immediate conclusions after May 25 and for doing so openly, accepting the responsibility of defeat.
The worst thing that leaders of severely punished parties can do is to pretend that nothing happened
Rubalcaba, a veteran of the Spanish political scene, has been dragged down by his time as part of the administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Even though he spent most of that time dealing with internal affairs – it was during that period that terrorist group ETA’s campaign of violence came to an end – the Popular Party (PP) preferred to cast him as the heir to the calamitous management of the economic crisis during the last years of the Socialist government.
A supporter of a moderate style of opposition, Rubalcaba was stuck between his desire to forge important state agreements for Spain and a government that has sometimes left him standing there with his hand outstretched. This has weakened his image for sectors that demand a tougher stand, and the party will have to consider whether it is possible to renew itself with politicians who had ties to former Socialist administrations.
In any case, the Socialist Party’s problems go beyond the specific questions of how it handled itself in the opposition. Suffice it to look at the poor showing of social democracy across Europe, and the serious difficulties that the Catalan Socialist Party is encountering, when it was once a hotbed of Socialist votes.
Rubalcaba knew that he could not lead the party renewal process, although he was trying to lead it toward the primaries scheduled for the fall. These primaries will now be decided on by future Socialist leaders.
It is to be hoped that the party will not only undertake a profound renewal of its leadership, but also end the internal divisions that are splitting the PSOE apart at a time when it needs to be able to integrate, not divide. If it falls back on personality cults, the Socialist Party will be finished as a relevant force on the Spanish political scene.
Even though it has been a key party in Spanish politics since the return of democracy, Socialism has also failed to do some deep stocktaking following its defeats in 2011. The temptation to take a populist turn would be a useless gesture for a party that is being questioned by the middle classes and the center-left, its traditional territory. The Socialist Party needs an in-depth debate to decide what it wants to do, in such a way as to be recognizable by the voters who have abandoned it. After that, everything will have to be built from the bottom up.