Socialists pin hopes on 'Spanish Tony Blair'

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The Independent Online

In a spirit of optimism unknown for years, Spain's socialists yesterday elected a young, unknown leader - already dubbed the Spanish Tony Blair - who pledged to revive the party's sagging fortunes and lead it back to power.

In a spirit of optimism unknown for years, Spain's socialists yesterday elected a young, unknown leader - already dubbed the Spanish Tony Blair - who pledged to revive the party's sagging fortunes and lead it back to power.

Confounding cynics, the party decided to break with a past that was destroying it and take a chance on Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, 39, who is scarcely known to the Spanish public. His anonymity is probably his biggest asset for a party paralysed by weary ideas and clapped-out leaders tainted with corruption.

"I'm going to lead this party once more to victory, and the biggest one in its history," Mr Rodriguez Zapatero promised a congress that enthusiastically closed ranks around him. "We've made a good start for change, the tranquil change that we need." Ending three years of botched attempts to replace Felipe Gonzalez as leader, Mr Rodriguez Zapatero seemed to spring from nowhere as the dream candidate: fresh but experienced, radical but safe.

A party member since 1977 and MP since 1986 for his native northern city of Leon, Mr Rodriguez Zapatero carries socialism in his veins: his grandfather, a captain in Spain's republican army, was executed by Franco at the start of civil war in 1936.

Mr Rodriguez Zapatero has created a Blair-like "New Way" current, backed by a clutch of militants, some untried, others long marginalised from power. This new guard emerged yesterday to lead Spain's oldest party: the new executive was revealed as a parallel party-in-waiting that contained no dinosaurs from traditional factions.

Few believed such a renaissance was possible. As the weekend congress opened, the safe money was on the machine's candidate, Jose Bono. Delegates swung between the man they thought would win, Mr Bono, and the man they really wanted, Mr Rodriguez Zapatero. They swiftly realised that the outsider was the more convincing, and old loyalties were ditched.

Mr Rodriguez Zapatero's youth, his attractive style - natural, elegant and authoritative - recalls the young Felipe Gonzalez at his most charismatic. He embodies hopes comparable to those raised in Britain by Mr Blair.

Mr Rodriguez Zapatero understands what his predecessors failed to grasp: that when in opposition, the party must act like an opposition, not a pseudo-government. It has taken Spain's socialists until now to accept the defeat of 1996 after 14 years in power. "I think of socialism as the transition from nostalgia to hope," Mr Rodriguez Zapatero said. "Our nostalgia was our absolute victory in 1982 led by Felipe. Our hope is for 2004."

It was his only nod to Mr Gonzalez, who has dominated Spanish socialism for more than 25 years. For the first time, Spain's socialists have acknowledged that their former leader is yesterday's man.

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