Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is keeping Spaniards guessing on whether he will run for re-election in 2012. His popularity has dropped and many are betting on him making way for another candidate.
Zapatero's handling of Spain's economic woes hasn't been popular
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is keeping Spanish voters guessing on whether he will stand again in elections next year.
"We must dedicate ourselves throughout 2011 to talking not about the Socialist Party, but about Spain," Zapatero said recently.
"We mustn't talk about the future of the party, but the future of Spain," he told fellow Socialists.
At a recent political convention, Spain's governing Socialists seemed to present a united front, confident of victory in approaching elections and sure of Zapatero's role as party leader.
"I'm proud of [Zapatero.] I'm proud of his values. I'm proud of his courage. I don't know a better Socialist," senior Socialist Jose Blanco said.
Popularity has taken a hit
High unemployment is a key concern among voters
But the Socialists have been lagging behind the opposition in the polls for months. And with nationwide local elections looming in May, the party could be heading for a heavy defeat.
Speculation over whether Zapatero will run again and when he will announce his decision is intense. The possibility he will not be a candidate is gaining ground in the media. Zapatero himself has said only two people know his plans - his wife and a colleague.
But the mystery surrounding the prime minister's plans has threatened to dominate Spanish politics, with signs of disunity becoming apparent in the Socialist ranks.
Economy a key concern
One senior party figure recently warned that if Zapatero does not make his intentions clear soon, the upcoming local elections will be a vote on the prime minister's popularity. And that, according to the opposition, could be bad news for the economy.
"This is bad for the credibility and calm that Spain's political situation should convey in order to generate economic confidence," said Maria Dolores de Cospedal of the opposition Popular Party.
And it's the economy that has been the government's main bugbear. Spain is struggling to emerge from recession and unemployment is the highest in Europe at 20 percent. Many blame Zapatero for the depth of the crisis.
"Right now he is tremendously unpopular," said Jose Juan Toharia of polling firm Metroscopia.
Rubalcaba has been mentioned as a possible successor
"Not only among voters of the Conservative party, but particularly among his own voters. He has disappointed so many sections of Socialist voters that, at this point, he is totally discredited," Toharia explained.
If Zapatero does stand aside, the favorite to replace him is his interior minister and deputy prime minister, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba. At 59, Rubalcaba is a decade older than Zapatero and a throwback to the Socialist government of the 1980s and 1990s, of which he was a member. He is also Zapatero's most popular minister.
An outside bet is Carme Chacon, a young politician who is Spain's first-ever female defense minister.
But despite the unpopularity of the government, it's not all doom and gloom in the Socialist camp. Zapatero surprised many recently by reaching a pact with labor unions that includes raising the retirement age from 65 to 67. This could help the government in the polls, according to Toharia.
"Most likely in the months ahead the Socialists will recover somehow, especially if Zapatero is not finally the running candidate."
Author: Guy Hedgecoe in Madrid / ng
Editor: Martin Kuebler