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Zapatero, will he or won't he?

The prime minister cannot play a guessing game over the crucial issue of his candidacy

Turning the issue of a possible changeover of power at the head of one of the country's main political forces, or of the government, into a guessing game constitutes an incomprehensible folly. This is even more the case when the person who is playing the game is the incumbent in the Moncloa prime-ministerial residence and secretary general of the party which fulfills the role of majority force among left-leaning voters. Since the most recent Cabinet reshuffle, Zapatero has been busy disseminating rumors which, at the same time, he claims that he desires to refute. But it is inevitable that rumors will abound when the leader of a government embattled by the economic crisis and suffering in the polls responds with ambiguity to questions relating to his continuance, as Zapatero has been doing in a manner which seems more frivolous than calculating.

As the prime minister and leader of the Socialists, Zapatero is well within his right to open the way to other party figures if he considers this to be for the best. But he has no right to go about this process as if it was part of a private game, rather than a transcendental decision which affects Spain's institutions, the country's credibility in the face of the crisis and its uncertainties, and, last but not least, the millions of citizens who voted for him. His peculiar way of governing during the boom years cannot turn into disdain toward the basic rules of the parliamentary system when conditions turn against him.

Neither his family nor an unidentified confidant within the Socialist Party are better qualified than public opinion at large to be apprised of his decision to either continue at the helm or step aside. Citizens are not children in need of tricks and traps to distract them. Those who have political sovereignty conferred on them by the citizens should give clear signs.

If Zapatero has decided to retire, he should already have designed the strategic guidelines of a replacement process which will be far from straightforward. Surrounding his pronouncements with a gratuitous sense of mystery gives the impression that he still lacks such a strategy. In terms of the fight against the economic crisis and of the Socialist Party's electoral prospects, the launching of a system of primaries with Zapatero staying on as secretary general after renouncing the possibility of running for a third term would be suicidal. Nor would handing over the leadership of government to another leader, who would immediately have to face the uncertainty of parliamentary approval, minimize the potential political costs of a changeover. Finally, the holding of an extraordinary party conference would distract attention from the government's tasks in hand.

The dead-end street which Zapatero appears to be ambling along will become all too patent if, as opinion polls suggest, the Socialists suffer a major setback in the regional elections set for May. If this is the case, it would not be so much the continuance of Zapatero or the present government that was at stake, but rather the future of the political tendency which the Socialist Party represents in Spain. The gravity of this situation makes a guessing game an unacceptable option.