Tuesday, September 02, 2003

The big news over here is, again, Mariano Rajoy's succession of Jose Maria Aznar as PP leader and candidate for Prime Minister in the March 2004 general elections.

Wild guess: What if Aznar calls a surprise general election to correspond with one of the other elections coming up? You see, general elections bring out a considerably better turnout than regionals, municipals, or Europeans. If turnout for a regional election is, say, 60%, and turnout for a general election is, say, 75%, and you hold the two elections on the same day, you'll get that 75% general election turnout in the regional election, too.

I firmly believe--and I bet Aznar and Rajoy and the rest of the brain trust firmly believe--that the PP will win the next generals with another absolute majority, barring absolute disaster. The answer to the question "Are you better off now than you were when the PP took over in 1996?" is, for an overwhelming majority of Spaniards, "Yes." And the less politically oriented a person is, the more likely he is to vote for the incumbent as long as there's a chicken in every pot. (Second quarter economic growth, just announced: 2.3%, the best in Europe, I think.) That extra 15% of voters for a general election is likely to be pretty solidly PP. Turn them loose in a regional election, which non-political people often ignore, and you might be looking at some real surprise regional results.

Aznar's got his party all ready to go, and they know what issues they're running on. The opposition parties are all in trouble, disorganized, fighting among themselves, and the like, and certainly not ready to go.

Calling the general election to correspond with the Madrid regional elections on Oct. 26 would really catch everyone by surprise and bring out those extra PP voters to put Esperanza Aguirre over the top. The Socialists would have no time to react, and they would get creamed in both Madrid and Spain as a whole.

Calling it to correspond with the Catalan elections, which still haven't been set but will almost certainly be in November, might be a really nasty trick, especially if you are Pasqual Maragall. See, Catalonia, along with the Basque Country, is the only place where the PP is not one of the two dominant parties, and the nationalists hate Aznar and the PP much more than the Socialists do. A huge nationalist turnout for the generals to vote against the PP would throw a bunch of votes to Convergence and Union and the Republican Left in the Catalan elections--quite possibly enough to torpedo "Delirium Tremens" Maragall. All those Catalan nationalist votes in the general elections won't hurt Rajoy, since for him the competition is the Socialists, not CiU and ERC. And Rajoy is pretty simpatico with CiU--he wouldn't mind it if they picked up a couple of extra deputies in the Spanish Parliament. Also, non-Katalanisch voters here in Catalonia often ignore regional elections, and they're quite likely to be, if not PP-friendly, at least PP-tolerant. Bring them out and watch the PP score 15% of the votes for the Catalan parliament, increasing their strength there.

Calling it to correspond with the Andalusian regional elections--for which a date hasn't been set, either, but they'll be sometime before March--will strike straight at the heart of the Socialists' biggest power base in Spain's most populous region. If the PP somehow manages to win Andalusia, and they've had a good deal of success there, they've really been giving the Socialists a run for their money, the Socialists are toast for the next five years.

Three more advantages to calling early elections: a) the most likely "unforeseeable disaster" that would badly hurt the PP is a big terrorist attack on the Spanish contingent on Iraq, sending a lot of Spanish boys home in body bags. The sooner you call the elections, the less likely you are to have to deal with that; b) Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is a bumbler who doesn't control his own party, and there are serious rumors that many elements among the Socialists (see: Bono, Jose) would like to get rid of him and impose a stronger candidate (see: Bono, Jose). The sooner you call the elections, the more likely you are going to be able to run against Zap rather than someone else. What would be really ideal is for the Socialists to boot Zap and for Aznar to immediately call elections to correspond with Madrid, Catalonia, or Andalusia. No way the Socialists would be able to mount any kind of campaign with a brand new leader who'd just taken over in a factional fight, even if he is Bono, Jose; c) right now Rajoy is just beginning his media honeymoon, and if you called general elections on Oct. 26 to correspond with the Madrid regionals, you'd still be able to take advantage of that.

A clue that this might be going to happen: Aznar has just lame-ducked himself. He's turned over control of the party to Rajoy.

"Bicephalism" is Spanish political jargon for a situation in which there are really two people in charge of a political party, not just one. Bicephalism is generally considered to be very, very bad. The Socialists are bicephalic; Felipe Gonzalez is believed by many to still have his hand in PSOE affairs and even to still be the guy who is really in charge. Convergence and Union is bicephalic; Artur Mas is the candidate but Jordi Pujol is the boss. The Basque Nationalist Party is bicephalic; Juan Jose Ibarretxe is the frontman but Xabier Arzalluz really runs things. The PP is not going to be bicephalic. Aznar has just said adios and hasta luego.

Jose Antich, the Vanguardia's editor-in-chief, wrote today's page 2 signed editorial. Here it is:

The first meeting of the Executive Committee of the People's Party, held yesterday in Madrid, gave Jose Maria Aznar the opportunity to symbolically push the button of his voluntary retirement from the front lines of Spanish political life. He didn't wait for September to reveal the name of his successor, keeping his promise that the political race would begin with the announcement of the new PP candidate, yesterday he slammed the door in the face of those who have insisted over and over that the centrist party will suffer from bicephalism. Aznar turned over all his functions within the party to Mariano Rajoy, who will be the formal leader of the organization with his new post of secretary general of the PP added to the inherent functions of the Prime Minister. There is no doubt that, as already happened in the last municipal elections, Aznar is still setting the pace of political activity; his detractors would do well to tone down their criticism of the system by which Rajoy was selected--didn't Gonzalez designate, or if you prefer, propose Almunia, didn't Pujol do the same with Artur Mas, or Xabier Arzalluz with Juan Jose Ibarretxe?--and recognize the democratic gesture of the Prime Minister's renouncing the continued leadership of the party after eight years in the Moncloa (the "White House"). I do not know if we will ever have another Prime Minister of Spain who will voluntarily renounce so much.

Note the word I boldfaced. Not "right-wing" or "conservative" or even "center-right". Centrist. The PP is centrist, says Jose Antich, the editor of Catalonia's most important newspaper. Jose Maria Aznar has made his party, the "conservative" party, the mainstream of Spanish political life for the first time since the death of Franco. Spain is finally shrugging off the effects of the dictatorship. Aznar might very well be the best political leader that Spain has had since Ferdinand of Aragon.

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