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Zapatero reshuffles government, ousts finance minister

Latest update : 2009-04-07

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero removed his finance minister Pedro Solbes in a cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday destined to act against the recession that has hit Spain hard.

AFP - Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero ousted his finance minister Tuesday in a reshuffle seen as a bid to boost his government's flagging support in Spain's worst recession in a generation.

Pedro Solbes, a European commissioner between 1999 and 2004, was replaced as by Elena Salgado, the minister for public administration, in the long-awaited reshuffle and will leave the government.

The health, education, culture and transport and infrastructure porfolios also changed hands but the prime minister kept several key posts unchanged, including the ministers of defence, foreign affairs and interior.

Zapatero told a news conference the reshuffle was necessary for a "change of rhythm" to tackle the economic crisis "with a new and stronger drive."

"The fight against the economic crisis is our highest priority and it's in a decisive phase," he said, adding that Salgado is "the appropriate person" for this task "and will demonstrate her extraordinary management ability."

Solbes, 66, who served as finance minister in the 1990s in a previous Socialist government and has held the economy and finance portfolio since Zapatero came to power in March 2004, had indicated that he wanted to retire.

His insistence on the need to enforce budgetary restraint had put him increasingly at odds with Zapatero, who backs additional government spending as a means to promote confidence and create jobs.

Party spokesman Jose Blanco will take on the post of transport and infrastructure minister, replacing Magdalena Alvarez who was criticised for her handling of a January snowstorm and a fatal commercial jet airliner crash in Madrid in August 2008.

Secretary of State for Ibero-America Trinidad Jimenez becomes health minister, replacing Bernat Soria, while the rector of the Autonomous University of Madrid, Angel Gabilondo, replaces Mercedes Cabrera Calvo-Sotelo as education minister.

The prime minister also created a new ministry for regional cooperation that will oversee the central government's relations with Spain's regional governments and which will he headed by the president of the southwestern region of Andalucia, Manuel Chaves.

The cabinet reshuffle comes after a poll published Sunday in left-wing daily Publico ahead of June elections for the European Parliament showed the worsening economic situation is taking its toll on the popularity of the government, even among members of the Socialist Party.

The party, re-elected to a second term with a slightly bigger majority in parliament in a March 2008 general election, trails the main opposition Popular Party (PP) by 1.5 percentage points, according to the poll taken last month.

The survey put the PP at 40.7 percent support, up five percentage points since January and the party's best score since the general election, compared to 39.2 percent for the Socialists, down one percentage point.

PP leader Mariano Rajoy said the reshuffle "is the explicit recognition of a failure" on the part of the government.

"There is no precedent for a government carrying out such a major reshuffle when it has not even been carrying out its responsibilities for a year," he said.

Spain entered into its first recession in 15 years at the end of 2008 as the global financial crisis worsened a correction that was already underway in the real estate sector, a key driver of growth.

The country's unemployment rate hit 15.5 percent in February, the highest level in the 27-nation European Union, and the Bank of Spain predicted Friday that it will reach 19.4 percent next year as the recession deepens.

Last year Zapatero unveiled an 11-billion-euro (15-billion-dollar) stimulus package, mostly dedicated to public works, aimed at fighting unemployment.

Spain's public deficit hit 3.8 percent of GDP in 2008, above a EU limit of 3.0 percent. It posted a surplus of 2.2 percent in the previous year.

Date created : 2009-04-07