Spain’s beleaguered prime minister suffered an embarrassing election setback as a poll showed his party trailing ever further behind the opposition conservatives at the national level.
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s hand-picked candidate to be the Socialist contender in next year’s race for the presidency of the Madrid regional government lost a primary election to a rebel candidate that Mr Zapatero had specifically asked not to run.
The party says the number of paid-up party members eligible to vote was just 18,000 and the margin of victory was a close 541 votes.
Mr Zapatero’s candidate, Trinidad Jimenez, the popular and nationally prominent health minister, was supported enthusiastically by Mr Zapatero and the big guns of his government.
But she lost to Tomas Gomez, the much lesser known president of the regional branch of Mr Zapatero’s Socialist party.
Primaries are rare in Spanish elections and this one was forced several months ago when Mr Zapatero picked Ms Jimenez to run in the regional election next year and Mr Gomez refused to drop out despite a request from Mr Zapatero.
Mr Gomez won even though internal party polls had said that Ms Jimenez had a better chance of beating the incumbent Madrid president, the deeply-entrenched conservative Esperanza Aguirre, seen as very hard to unseat.
Yesterday’s result suggests that with all Mr Zapatero’s problems – a 20% jobless rate and listless economy, unions angry over reforms and other austerity measures, and markets wary of Spanish government finances – the premier has trouble even imposing his authority over a handful of members of his party living in the same city as him.
And a survey published yesterday in El Pais doled out more bad news, saying the opposition Popular Party would win by 14.5 percentage points over the Socialists if elections were held now. The next general election is currently scheduled for 2012.
The regional elections next year are nationwide, however, and seen as a litmus test for what might happen in 2012. Mr Zapatero, first elected in 2004, has not yet confirmed if he will seek a third term then.
The new cushion for the conservatives has grown by 5.6 percentage points in just a month in the Metroscopia poll carried out for the nation’s top selling paper, which tends to be pro-Zapatero.
The survey was conducted last Thursday, a day after a general strike held against the government’s austerity plans. The margin of error was 4.5 points.