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PSOE: A new generation in command?

Saturday 10 February 2001, by Antonio Garcia Santesmases

On July 23rd, 2000, the 35th Federal Congress of Spain’s Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (PSOE) came to an end. Four candidates had contested the post of general secretary of the party: José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, José Bono, Matilde Fernández y Rosa Díez. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero won the election with the votes of 414 delegates (41.69%) as against 405 votes (40.79%) for José Bono. Matilde Fernández obtained 109 votes (10.98%) and Rosa Díez 65 (6.55%).

The first thing that comes to mind after the congress is that the worst was avoided. However, it is also useful to highlight the appearance of certain ideological themes in the speeches and proposals of the new leadership.

For many delegates, if Bono had won the race to become general secretary of the party, it would have meant the reproduction of the worst sectarianism which had been amply displayed by the movement of so-called renovators in the guise of half-digested populism. On the eve of the congress, his defeat seemed unlikely. Yet he was beaten because of the votes of different sectors of the left who preferred to opt for "the lesser evil".

After José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was elected general secretary, the other candidates disappeared from the scene and the media’s fire was concentrated on the personality of this young man (aged 40) who appeared as the representative of a new generation, the "leader of the new times" in the words of a headline in the newspaper El Socialista. This victory of the unknown was hailed by the media which stressed a renewal of the leadership, with the disappearance of the members of the generation of the Suresnes congress (the PSOE congress held in 1974 in France, at which Felipe González was elected general secretary). There has even been reference to a "new Suresnes", which should be nuanced in order to properly understand the situation.

Some have died (Rubial, Carmen Garcia Bloise), others have left the leadership of the party, like Enrique Mugica in 1994 or Felipe Gonzalez, Alfonso Guerra and Txiqui Benegas in 1997. It is true that on the eve of the congress, speculation flew as to the election of Gonzalez to the presidency of the party. Zapatero, curiously, was the warmest partisan of this proposal. Gonzalez finally renounced it, which contributed to giving the image of the beginning of a new era.

The real problem concerns the intermediary generation, the group of leaders who were not present at Suresnes but who since the 1980s have occupied positions of power in the government and autonomous communities. Natural heirs of Gonzalez, they appeared all set to succeed him. The opportunity presented itself in June 1997. Certainly, they had the qualities required, a great deal of political experience. But as a result of the internal quarrels of the leading group, erratic decision-making and, finally, the result of the elections, they had to renounce their goal. The resignation of Joaquín Almunia as general secretary of the PSOE following the general election defeat of March 2000 marked the retreat of that generation of leaders who had tried to survive by supporting the candidature of Bono.

The big winners from this congress are the likes of Laguina, Ciscar or Rubalcaba who supported Bono or again those, like Eguiagaray and other who supported Rosa Diez. It is a generation which is still very young to abandon political life, but this congress has forced them to quit the front stage.

They are palpably of the same generation as those who take the leadership today. If there is a significant difference of age between Zapatero and Gonzalez, this is not the case between Rubalcaba and Alvaro Cuesta.

The difference is rather that the victors have only ever occupied political posts of the second rank. Deputies, provincial cadres, cabinet chiefs in different ministries, they had little to lose and knew how to seize their opportunity. If Bono won, he would call on some of them to organise the parliamentary group. If he lost, it would only be a stage in their path towards power. For Bono, on the contrary, it was a defeat with heavy consequences. Still, the losers are not going to