Monday, November 11, 2013

A New Image For A New PSOE?

The next national election in Spain must be held by 13 January 2016. Two years to go, the PSOE socialist party spent this past weekend laying the groundwork for an election but managed to emerge from its conference in Madrid with many questions unanswered. At the top of the list is who might be leading the party into the next election.

Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the loser in 2011, who continues to guide his party with a benign, uncle-like presence, has not ruled out running again for leadership at the party's primaries. He can currently count on the backing of former PSOE prime ministers, Zapatero and González, both of them hauled out in Madrid, González more symbolically so, as it was he, when elected party leader way back in 1974, who represented the ideological shift with PSOE's old socialism; there was a new labour movement in Europe long before New Labour. The Madrid conference has been a talking shop for how PSOE can now make itself new, new PSOE, a PSOE Mark III for the twenty-first century. And Rubalcaba has hinted that he will be the man to take the party to a new promised land.

What this PSOE Mark III might end up looking like is anyone's guess. Will it be a bright, shiny, dynamic new model for a new age or a rusty recycled model of one-time socialist principles, a camel of compromise manufactured by committee? There was talk in Madrid of getting back in touch with the people on the streets, which could mean anything but which, for any political party, should actually be a priority. There was further talk of regaining the party's origins, and if this were the case then PSOE would collapse in a heap of quasi-communism. I suspect that this was not what was meant.

Rubalcaba has begun to put some flesh on the bones of what might be the next manifesto. Tax reforms would be on the agenda and would include scrapping income tax for the unemployed (who do actually pay income tax - two per cent of benefit payments) and for families earning less than 16,000 euros a year. Rubalcaba also wants constitutional reform, something that would potentially open up an enormous can of worms and would also be hard to achieve without the support of the Partido Popular. As one element of such reform might centre on the Catalonia question, i.e. greater autonomy for Catalonia and other regions, a move to a genuinely federal state or even independence, the reform would probably be dead in the water and would probably not even have widespread PSOE support; PSOE has typically been as opposed to threats of the break-up of Spain as the PP has been. But such reform may in the meantime have been overtaken by events, if Catalonia does press ahead with its independence referendum.

A new image for PSOE, one to be presented to the electorate in two years time, will not just depend on policies. Can a new image truly be presented by a leader who has lost an election and can it be carved when PSOE, as with the PP and with the political class in general, is so despised and mistrusted? The inherent corruption of the political system, brought about by an absence of transparency especially regarding funding, has been exposed ever more thanks to the Bárcenas affair. This may be an affair that the PP has to contend with but it has served to highlight the secrecy that surrounds both main political parties.

Spain, since the establishment of democracy, has had a handful of prime ministers. Of these, and in terms of their public face, Rajoy has been the worst by some considerable distance; a monotonous, monochrome premier of mind-numbing dullness. Of others, Zapatero was likable enough, while Aznar was essentially a technocrat with one hand on his accountancy bible and the other on his bottle of hair dye. González shines out among them. When he was elected in 1982, there really was a new image.

For PSOE, and the same can be said for the PP, it needs a new face for whatever new image it creates. Rubalcaba would struggle to take PSOE to victory and he would have an even greater battle in attempting to do so if the real economy does actually show signs of improvement and if, as may happen, Rajoy cuts IVA and income tax (the rises were only meant to have been temporary). Rubalcaba was also a minister in the Zapatero government. A key issue for the electorate will be, new image or no new image, whether it could trust PSOE with the economy again.

But a new face could work wonders for PSOE. Might that new face be a woman's? Carme Chacón's perhaps? Or has her failure to beat Rubalcaba in the past ruled her out? It would be intriguing were there to be female leader and so possibly a female prime minister, but the male order may have its own champion. Watch out for Eduardo Madina, the secretary-general of the socialist group in Congress. Zapatero did once suggest that he would one day like to see Madina as leader. When he said this, Madina was only 33. Two days before the cut-off date for the next election he will be 40. New image, new face, new PSOE Mark III. Is Madina the coming man?

* Photos from Wikipedia.

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