Spain’s Rajoy: the no-frills, under-estimated survivor
Criticised as dull and uncharismatic, Spain's outgoing prime minister Mariano Rajoy retorts that he represents stability in the face of inexperienced upstarts, especially the "radicals" of the anti-austerity Podemos party.
And this argument appears to have resonated with voters as the 61-year-old’s conservative Popular Party (PP) finished stronger in Sunday’s repeat elections, gaining more seats than in December polls though still without a majority.
“It’s been hard, it’s been difficult, it’s been complicated, but we put up a fight for Spain,” he said in the early hours of Monday, ecstatic, looking down from a tall podium on a crowd of supporters waving blue flags.
Faced with stiff competition from younger candidates who have uprooted what many considered a staid two-party scene, the grey-bearded, bespectacled leader describes himself as a safe pair of hands.
He boasts of having dragged the eurozone’s fourth largest economy away from economic collapse with strict austerity measures after he came to power in 2011.
Under his watch, Spain has returned to growth and unemployment has fallen back down to 21 percent from a high of nearly 27 percent in early 2013, even if it remains the second highest rate in the European Union.
But critics says he is disconnected from the social reality on the ground, with the jobs created unstable and temporary, and also point to repeated corruption scandals that have hit the PP.
Undeterred, Rajoy says these have been isolated cases and when his interior minister was caught on tape discussing ways to incriminate his political rivals with an anti-fraud official days before the polls, he shrugged it off as a “farce”.
– Rajoy ‘will survive’ –
After the last elections in December, where his PP also came first without an absolute majority, Rajoy failed to garner support and gave up trying to form a coalition.
He went largely silent as other parties tried where he had failed, but they too were unsuccessful, which forced Sunday’s repeat elections.
His rivals have all been vocal about wanting him to step down from the leadership of his party — whatever the final score.
But the higher number of seats won in Sunday’s election put him in a position of force in subsequent negotiations, and analysts predict he may be successful.
Political scientist Anton Losada concludes that the self-professed “predictable man” is anything but, in a book he wrote on Rajoy.
“The only thing that appears sure is that come what may, Rajoy, like the protagonist of Gloria Gaynor’s song, will survive,” he writes.
Uneasy with public grillings — he once conducted a press conference via a plasma screen — Rajoy nevertheless calmly weathered the blows of his rivals in an unprecedented four-way pre-election debate earlier in June.
His lectern covered in post-it notes, he deflected criticism on corruption scandals and his economic policies.
“When I came to power, Spain was threatened with bankruptcy… and now it isn’t,” he said.
“They all say that they’re going to fix things as if by magic, but that’s also what (Prime Minister Alexis) Tsipras said in Greece,” he added in a thinly-veiled dig at Syriza ally Podemos.
– Life of politics –
Born in 1955 in Santiago de Compostela in the conservative, northwestern Galicia region, Rajoy is the eldest son of a provincial court president.
Educated in a Jesuit school and trained as a lawyer, Rajoy turned to politics at a young age, joining the Popular Alliance, the party founded by ministers of former dictator Francisco Franco which later became the PP.
In a rare television chat on his personal life before the last elections, Rajoy said he never had many girlfriends, although he eventually married in his early forties and has two sons.
A fervent football aficionado, he supports Real Madrid, but politics has been his life.
After working as a land registrar in his early 20s, Rajoy was elected a regional official at age 26.
He later became the right-hand man of Jose Maria Aznar, who was Spanish leader from 1996 to 2004, serving in several ministerial posts.
As spokesman for the government in the later years of Aznar’s leadership, he shielded him from criticism over his handling of the 2002 Prestige tanker spill or Spain’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Aznar appointed him as his successor, but Rajoy went on to lose two general elections to the Socialists.
Voters finally handed him the premiership in 2011 as the country suffered the ravages of a crisis sparked by the collapse of Spain’s construction boom in 2008.
Photo credit: European People’s Party.