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Socialists' double emergency

The PSOE must solve its succession problem promptly, for the sake of stability in Spain

This Saturday the Federal Committee of the Socialist Party (PSOE) is due to set a timetable for primary elections to pick the successor to José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero as candidate in next year's elections. As the minister and party secretary José Blanco explained, the fact that internal elections have been called does not necessarily mean they will take place. This remark can only be interpreted as meaning that voices within the party have been advising against an operation whose benefits may be very small in comparison with the image of division it would offer. These are sensible voices.

Zapatero is still secretary general of the party, and prime minister. Taking personal credit for successes carries with it the risk of bearing personal blame for failures, and this is precisely what happened on Sunday, when much of the Socialist Party's electorate failed to come out and stop the advance of the Popular Party. Disenchanted with the central government's performance, they punished the party's local and regional candidates, regardless of their personal merits.

The Socialist defeat has been of a magnitude that few were willing to admit they were expecting, but all feared. The Socialists now need to get used to the fact that they are facing a double emergency, and that neither their voters, nor society in general, are willing to sit back and wait for them to resolve their internal problems. If the situation in which Spain now finds itself is critical, owing to the instability of the financial markets and the growing pressures on the national debt, the corner in which it places the party in power concerning the substitution of Zapatero as prime ministerial candidate is no less grave. And not only on account of the instability that the succession debate implies for the country.

To hold primary elections in which presumably two candidates, both ministers in the present government, will be at odds in party chapters throughout Spain, would be a risk and a handicap to the government's primary responsibility, and the single solid reason for not holding early elections- that is, to keep going ahead with the plans to restore financial stability to the country and to see through ongoing reforms without any dangerous temporal hiatus, as well as ensuring parliamentary stability to the same end. In short, to keep the helm steady as the ship threatens to capsize.

If the Socialists believe that the public would understand any other course of conduct, it means they are so out of touch with Spanish society that the central role they have always played in Spanish politics would be in jeopardy. They must deal promptly with the succession question, among other reasons so that the victor will have time to control the damage done last Sunday, and mobilize the voters for next year.

Bringing forth a new leader with a new program is a big challenge not only for the PSOE, but also for the democratic system. What is at stake is the very existence of a countervailing power in what is shaping up as a situation of hegemony for the Popular Party.