Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar predicted on Sunday his centre-right Popular Party would continue governing for years to come, but the question remained of who would lead the party forward. Aznar, 48, again vowed to step down from power in the prime of his political life, telling supporters at a party congress clamouring for him to seek a third term in 2004 that eight years was enough. Party leaders who aspire to succeed Aznar began to show some of their ambition during the three-day congress, which was marked by a triumphant tone as Aznar was elected party president for the fifth and last time. The process of selecting the prime ministerial candidate, however, was left to the next congress, probably in 2003. In 12 years at the helm Aznar has transformed a hard right party with faint links to the former dictatorship of General Francisco Franco into a modern, centrist party that unseated the Socialists in 1996 and has not looked back since. “We are the centre of political life in Spain, we are the centre of Spanish politics,” Aznar told 3'000 party faithful. “And I have the impression given the way things are going we will continue to be for many more years.” Aznar took advantage of Socialist corruption scandals to unseat charismatic former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez in 1996. He won re-election four years later with an absolute majority in parliament as the economy boomed and Spanish voters rewarded his hard-line stance against the violence of the Basque separatist group ETA. Jockeying to become Aznar's successor came mostly on Saturday, when the three most prominent probables took the podium - Economy Minister Rodrigo Rato, Interior Minister Mariano Rajoy and former Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja. Rato is more technocratic but wields his considerable power unassumingly. Rajoy's brief has grown steadily under Aznar. Aware that delegates were searching for any sign of who might become front-runner, Rato noted with tongue in cheek that he was the first of the three to speak, but “not because of what some of you are thinking, or maybe it is.” Party's Secretary General Javier Arenas is also frequently mentioned as a dark horse to replace Aznar as candidate, while Foreign Minister Josep Pique is on some commentators' short list due to the importance of his post. Spanish media added two names during the congress: the youthful-looking Justice Minister, Angel Acebes, and the European Union Transport and Energy Commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, the only woman in the group.


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