It's been a bad fortnight for Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, not that I care much about that: after PSOE's defeat in the Galician elections, he is having to issue a lot of statements about how the party is behind him. Actually both Rubalcaba's best times, and PSOE's, look to be behind them. PSOE might have expected, in the circumstances of extreme and disastrous austerity, to have reversed, in the polls at least, their standing relative to the PP which caused them to be massively defeated in last November's elections. Not so: the PP have lost some ground, but not a lot of it to PSOE, who have themselves leaked support, to their left and to abstentionism.
Rubalcaba was fortunate to remain leader after the internal PSOE elections earlier this year, elections which he was expected, even on the day of the vote itself, to lose to Carme Chacón. The term "fortunate" may not be right one, as the change in fortunes owed less to luck than to a last-minute arrangement with the Andalusian section of the party to give Rubalcaba rather than Chacón their support. If only it were possible to manage general elections like party elections, Rubalcaba must have thought. Unfortunately the electorate can't be quite so easily manipulated by horse-trading and arm-twisting. Not that it does them any good: if there is no horse-trading, it is because there are no horses to offer them.
Comparisons deceive as much as they explain, but if I were trying to find figures to compare to Rubalcaba, I might ask the reader to merge Jim Callaghan and Denis Healey, something I imagine is pretty difficult for anybody aged less than forty-five. (It is difficult enough for me, and I am forty-seven.) Rubalcaba is very much a machine politician, not that there is really any other kind, and undoubtedly able - as we were taught to write of politicians when I was studying History for A-Level. "He was extremely able and a fine orator", that was the phrase. Rubalcaba is very able and a mediocre orator.
Tough, as Healey was, clever, as Healey was, and on the Right of the party, as both Healey and Callaghan were, but supposedly with the avuncular appeal, to scoop up another cliché, that was one of Callaghan's electoral assets. Supposedly. Of course Callaghan and Healey are more famous for losing elections than winning them, and the same is true of Rubalcaba, on whose image and personality the PSOE campaign of 2011 rested almost in its entirety.
Nothing will come of nothing, and not much came of that. Nor has much come of it since.
As I say, I don't care much about Rubalcaba. But I would rather PSOE did much better in the polls, not because I care about PSOE but because I care about their voters: I view elections as a contest not so much between parties as between the people who naturally support them. Hence, just as one would support Democrats against Republicans - without necessarily assuming that their candidates will be significantly better if they win - I back, on a visceral level as much as anything else, Labour against Conservative, PSOE against PP. It's a civilisation thing.
Not that it matters, though, since in regional and national elections, I do not have a vote. Even if I did, there will not be national elections until 2015. But in the meanwhile PSOE are well behind the PP in the polls, and it's not a good sign. It's a sign that people think there is nowhere to go. Nowhere - or put another way, anywhere but here.
If Rubalcaba goes, Chacón might replace him, or Patxi López, or a surprise candidate, such as Zapatero was when he became Secretary-General. I'd rather either of the alternatives than López, whose spell as Lehendakari contradicted what I wrote above about not being able to fix elections with horse-trading: he ruled Euskadi with the support of the PP, purely to keep out the Basque Nationalist Party, which had come first in the election.
In my more cynical moments, which are most of my waking moments, I regard this as a dry run for whatever government of national unity - one of those phrases that is almost always a lie - may be imposed on Spain, as it was on Greece, by international pressure in the relatively near future. This would have the advantage that Papademos (and Monti) lacked, of a government actually being headed by an elected politician rather than somebody the financial markets happened to like. The advantage for the financial markets, anyway. It'd be a Potemkin government, naturally. But Patxi López wouldn't have any problem with that.
One could spend all weekend detailing and unpicking the reasons for PSOE's failure to recover from last November. Their own responsibility for the situation, the corruption and patronage of the party, the detachment of the young from mainstream politics and so on. But other people, with more time and subject knowledge than I have, can tell you about that. Besides, none of the elements which have led to their present position are likely to go away soon.
Corruption will not go away, nor the closed party list system, nor the crisis, nor austerity. Nor will PSOE, who have some way to go before they reach the nadir of, say, the Labour Party in Ireland, or PASOK in Greece: that would surely require another period in government. There will be plenty of time, watching Spain disintegrate, to observe how austerity is much more damaging to major left-of-centre parties, who are obliged to attack their own supporters, than to their counterparts on the right, who are much more able to protect at least their core support.
Maybe PSOE will find a way out of this. In the short time one cannot see how. If the politicised young despise the party's corruption - rather less than the PP's, but still widespread - how will the party address that? By purging itself? That would expose the party and tear it apart. So it cannot, and hence cannot attract the support of people who are inclined to use the term PPPSOE.
But to look at the question more sympathetically, what can PSOE actually do? What can they propose, what alternative political project to austerity can they formulate, which they and the electorate can believe in? "Credibility" is generally used in political commentary to mean "satisfactory to the financial markets", but it has other, less common but more fundamental meanings, including the conception that a political party's programme has less credibility with the electorate if they do not believe the party is going to implement it. And what faith can there be in an anti-austerity PSOE when PSOE gave us the first three years of austerity?
It is not just a question of will, but a question of means. It is often a conservative slogan, but sometimes a realistic one - where is the money to come from? The Spanish government pays nearly 7% to borrow money on the international markets. Because of this, its economy is in dire straits: because of that, it pays crippling interest rates to borrow money. To see this is simple, for anyone who wishes to see it. To say how you get out of that cycle is less simple. Austerity is no answer, that much is clear to anybody who cares. But what if there is no answer?
Other governments, which enjoy low rates of borrowing, could break with austerity tomorrow. If they do not do so, it is because they are malign, ill-motivated and foolish. The Spanish government is quite likely all of those things, and might be even if it were a PSOE government instead. But what can Rajoy actually do that Zapatero could not? What, of substance, could Chacón or López do that Rajoy has not? And that's before we even ask what meaning policy differences will have when the Troika are the ones dictating policy.
When you are paying a mortgage, it is not you, but the bank, that owns your house. A lot of people in Spain are finding out that truth the hard way. When you are paying 7% to borrow, it is not you, but the banks, that own your government. Spain is finding that out, too. That 7% is a halter around Spain's neck. A halter, and a halter that threatens to become a noose. Austerity pretends to ease its grip, but in truth, it tightens it. That is the purpose of austerity. But PSOE do not have the power to take the halter off.