Madrid – Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced Friday that Spain's general elections, originally set for March 2012, will take place on Nov. 20.
His "well-considered" move, which came the same day rating agency Moody's said it may downgrade Spanish debt, is intended to "project political and economic certainty" in a difficult situation, the Socialist premier told a press conference.
Zapatero, 50, who said months ago that he would not be seeking a third four-year term, broke the news after the weekly Cabinet meeting.
The announcement ends weeks of speculation about the possibility of early elections, something the main opposition Popular Party has been demanding with greater insistence since the conservatives made big gains in May's regional and local balloting.
It also followed the release of a poll showing the Socialists, led by erstwhile Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, narrowing the PP's advantage among voters to 7.1 percentage points.
The 60-year-old Rubalcaba, who came to prominence as a Cabinet member during the 1982-1996 Socialist administration of Felipe Gonzalez, will vie with PP leader Mariano Rajoy to lead the next government.
Rajoy, a minister in the 1996-2004 PP government, lost to Zapatero in the 2004 and 2008 elections.
Moody's Investors Service said Friday that it is reviewing the current Aa2 classification of Spanish sovereign debt, raising concerns about the country's continuing economic weakness and the failure of some of Spain's regions to rein in spending.
Zapatero, however, offered a positive interpretation of the latest Spanish economic data, which included a small decline in unemployment - from 21.3 percent to 20.9 percent.
"It will take time before the recovery reaches the pace we desire for job creation to resume with strength, but the foundations are laid," the prime minister said, also hailing a reduction in Spain's ratio of debt to gross domestic product.
The decision to move up the elections is "good for the interests of all Spaniards, albeit late," the PP's Rajoy said Friday.
He told journalists the PP is ready to lead the political change the country needs, while acknowledging that the next government "will have a very difficult task, because Spain has many problems."
Zapatero rejected the notion that the choice of Nov. 20 - the 36th anniversary of the death of Francisco Franco - as the date of the election was motivated by political considerations.
The exact timing, he said, was dictated by the fact that November is a month with several long holiday weekends.