José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is facing the final stretch of his second mandate surrounded by more unknown factors than known ones. Not even his continuance is assured ? only doubtfully at the head of the government until the next election, and even less so as part of the Socialist slate when the country votes. What is now his lot, in any case, is not a mere period of waiting, but a political calvary to which he cannot put an end until after May, or even prolong with the single purpose of lasting out the legislature.
When the crisis began Zapatero presented himself, successively, as an ideological bulwark against the recession; as an impotent victim of its effects; and as a leader who was sacrificing himself to carry out the necessary policies. So many roles in succession, never accepted of his own will but always when driven by circumstances, only tend to confirm the image of muddling and improvisation that he now has to carry with him.
The stagnation of the economic situation will soon be aggravated by two factors that are going to further complicate the end of the legislature. The first is a possible recrudescence of social protest, after the stiff price hikes in certain basic goods and the reform of the pension system, to be followed by that of the collective bargaining system. However well disposed to dialogue the union leaders may be, the inevitable malaise caused by the government's latest measures leaves them with little room for maneuver. After the prime minister's credibility, that of the union leaders may be next in jeopardy.
The regional and municipal elections in May constitute the second factor that will determine the political course of 2011. If the forecasts come true and the Socialist Party suffers a severe defeat, Zapatero will by then have used up all the cards he theoretically had in his hand to offer an adequate response to a defeat. A new Cabinet reshuffle would be an insufficient response, unless it were to include Zapatero's own resignation. And in this case, too, as in that of possible early elections, the Socialist Party would still have to solve the problem of choosing a new leader.
Unless unforeseen (and hard to imagine) factors intervene, the unknowns of the new year lie not so much in the continuance or not of Zapatero, as in how he will manage his exit from the stage, after the political calvary that now awaits him. The regional "barons" of the Socialist Party, who now also see their continuity in office endangered, have been reiterating the messages in which they prudently distance themselves from Zapatero, and so have the principal candidates for municipal office.
That is, those who were quick enough to yield to his power when it was on the rise are now just as quick to challenge it in its decline, in spite of the fact that the policies that Zapatero is now implementing are by no means as frivolous as some of the moves he made in the past. Far from saving themselves from the impending shipwreck, these barons and these municipal candidates who are now at such pains to distance themselves from their own party, are helping to precipitate the disaster.