MADRID — Spain's embattled prime minister announced Saturday he will not seek re-election at general elections in 2012 as his country grapples with debt, high unemployment and a faltering economy badly hit by the international financial crisis.
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told a party meeting he would limit his time in office to two terms, opening a process of primaries to elect his successor at the helm of the Socialist Party.
"I will not be a candidate in the forthcoming general elections," he said, adding it was the right decision for the country, his party and his family.
Zapatero, 50, was elected to office in 2004 in the wake of terror attacks on Madrid's trains that left 191 dead and 1,800 injured, and a wave of public disapproval at the previous government's involvement in the Iraq war.
At the time, Spain's economy was one of the most dynamic in Europe having recorded continuous growth for around a decade.
But the credit crunch and subsequent financial crisis has dogged Zapatero's second term and immersed Spain in debt and a eurozone-high unemployment rate of 20 percent.
The Socialist Party faces regional and municipal elections on May 22 and then must build toward nationwide general elections with a new leader.
The most likely candidates are current Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba and Defense Minister Carme Chacon, who would become Spain's first female premier if elected.
A tired-looking Zapatero said he had been convinced that two terms as leader of the government was enough seven years ago when he first took office, and he remained convinced of that decision today.
The Socialists must choose their new candidate in March 2012 for national elections at an as-yet unspecified date later that year.
Rubalcaba, 59, is seen by many as a very experienced politician who has acted as Zapatero's hard man against the violent Basque separatists of ETA.
At 40, Chacon cuts a youthful dash but has gained considerable respect in charge of the nation's defense, overseeing Spain's troops in Afghanistan and as part of the international effort to enforce a no fly zone over and a naval blockade off Libya.
The conservative opposition Popular Party used its Twitter web feed network to call on the government to hold early general elections.