It might sound odd for a socialist Workers Party to be ruled by men known as barons, but that is the way it has been on the left in Spain for much of the past 25 years. Regional power brokers have long called the shots in the PSOE, the party that governed Spain for most of the period since the death in 1975 of dictator General Francisco Franco. The system worked well for the PSOE during the almost 14 years that Felipe González ran the country; he could keep the barons in line, and his personal eloquence and charisma kept the opposition conservatives, the Popular Party, in the electoral shade.
But when the González era came to an end — tarnished by accusations of corruption within his administration and allegations that his governments turned a blind eye to a dirty war against Basque separatists — the wheels started to fall off. The PSOE lost office to the Popular Party in 1996, a narrow defeat that turned into a rout when the PP won a clear majority in elections in March this year.
Last week, the PSOE saw hope that its days in the wilderness might not last forever. A young man many Spanish voters had barely heard of emerged from a marathon three-day party congress to announce "the dawn of a new day for a new Socialist Party." The barons were beaten. Against all the odds, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, 39, had been elected the PSOE's secretary-general. He won by only nine votes over favorite Jose Bono, a veteran baron and president of the Castilla La Mancha region.
Zapatero has been a parliamentary deputy for the past 14 years, but passed almost unnoticed in that role. A lawyer from Castile and León, he came to attention only when he put forward a Nueva Via (New Way) policy, not unlike Tony Blair's Third Way in Britain.
While his victory over Bono — and the Basque Member of the European Parliament Rosa Diez, and Matilde Fernández, the representative of another fading baron — was a surprise, few outsiders doubted that the party needed a makeover. Since González stepped aside in 1996, the PSOE has had no fewer than three general secretaries. The last, Joaquin Almunia, won the job, then lost it, then got it again before quitting after the party's March drubbing at the polls.
The setting off on a new foot that Zapatero represents — his name means shoemaker — was reflected in the fact that the 998 delegates re-elected only three of the 25-member outgoing executive committee. The most popular of the new guard is Jose Asenjo, from the southern city of Malaga. He escaped death only 48 hours before the congress started when a bomb put under his car by the Basque terrorist group ETA failed to explode. The new executive body has an average age of 42; the youngest, Leire Pajin, a parliamentary deputy for Alicante, is only 23. Zapatero said the congress had been as vital to the party as was the one it held in exile in Suresnes, in France, in 1973. It was there that Felipe González rose to power in the party.
Both Zapatero and the man he now opposes, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, have similar dour personalities. Madrid-based daily El Mundo described Zapatero as "cold, astute and professional." But in less than a week he has changed the mood of the PSOE from depressed and embittered to optimistic and forward-looking.
Zapatero quickly assumed his new role, calling on Aznar in Madrid's Moncloa Palace. While Aznar, 47, has had strained relations with Zapatero's predecessors, the two men seemed to hit it off. They talked for more than two hours, particularly about what to do about the increasing terrorism by ETA. They agreed to collaborate against it, and possibly to form their two parties into an alternative to the ruling Basque Nationalist Party in the next elections in the region.
As he left the Moncloa after meeting Aznar, Zapatero said: "When we get to know one another better, I could even find him pleasant." That's something an old Socialist baron would never have said.
Reported by Jane Walker/Madrid