Spain's interior minister and deputy prime minister has resigned to concentrate on running for prime minister in general elections the ruling Socialist party is expected to lose.
Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba made the announcement Friday after a Cabinet meeting and said his departure would take effect more or less immediately.
The government's most prominent member after Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the wiry, energetic Perez Rubalcaba will be formally proclaimed the party's candidate at a meeting Saturday.
General elections must be held by March, but there is speculation Zapatero may call them early. He is not seeking a third term. Zapatero's government is saddled with an economy battling to overcome recession and a jobless rate of 21.3 percent.
Polls say the center-right Popular Party will win easily.
The timing of Perez Rubalcaba's departure was the subject of much debate in Spain, with the Popular Party saying it was inappropriate for him to be starting to act like a candidate while still serving in the government.
Perez Rubalcaba, who is 60, denied Friday there was any incompatibility in his situation until now, and said he would keep his seat in parliament. He said that once he is officially named candidate, his focus will shift and he thus has to leave the government now.
"I am not going to be in a position to dedicate all the commitment that government requires," he said.
He denied his departure means early elections will be called, saying the date is up to Zapatero, as is who will replace him in his various posts as deputy prime minister, interior minister and government spokesman.
Perez Rubalcaba is a workaholic known for excellent oratorical skills in parliament and elsewhere, and a veteran of Socialist governments that ruled Spain for nearly 14 years starting in the early 1980s until the center-right took over. Zapatero was elected in 2004 and Perez Rubalcaba came back with him.