Madrid.—Unemployment has soared to the highest rate in the European Union as Zapatero - who will not stand for a third term - slashed spending to keep Spain from being sucked into the euro zone debt crisis that has claimed Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

The front runners to replace him are Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, a party veteran, and Defense Minister Carme Chacon, a young, Catalan politician and the country's first female Defense minister.

The selection process begins on Saturday, but there is disagreement within the party whether to force one of them to step aside for now, or to begin a 40-50 day primary at a time when the government is under pressure to call early elections. “I honestly don't want a behind the scenes agreement,” Jose Blanco, Public Works Minister and high-level party leader widely seen as the Socialists' kingmaker said.

But other prominent socialists disagreed. “We don't need a process in the Socialist Party now where there is an internal competition between candidates. The best thing in my opinion would be for one candidate but the primaries are a procedure that the party has established,“”Socialist Member of the European Parliament Diego Lopez Garrido said in Brussels.

The opposition center-right Popular Party has called on Zapatero to call early elections for parliament.