Favourite to be Spanish PM, Rajoy is seen as dull but safe

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Spain's grey-bearded, lisping opposition leader Mariano Rajoy is often criticised as being boring, but polls show voters are turning to him in droves to fix an economy in crisis.

The 56-year-old head of the centre-right Popular Party appears set for a crushing win over the ruling Socialists in Sunday's general election, the surveys show.

If so, it will be third time lucky for Rajoy, defeated by outgoing premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in 2004 and again 2008.

This time around, Spaniards are looking for a leader to haul them out of an economic crisis that has left 21.5 percent of the workforce out of a job and tipped the country towards recession.

Charisma does not seem to be a priority.

The opening line of "In Confidence", an autobiographical sketch of his political vision published this year, paints a prosaic picture.

"I am Mariano Rajoy, a Spaniard and a Galician born in Santiago 56 years ago," it read.

But in a time of economic hardship, voters may see his style as reassuringly straightforward, analysts say.

"His great weakness of being a boring and predictable man has been converted into his great strength," said Anton Losada, a political analyst at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Rajoy's hometown.

"It is a victory for perseverence," Losada said.

"He has kept up the political line of someone normal and predictable," and now in policy terms, "his principal strength is the crisis and unemployment," for which the Socialists are widely blamed.

Educated in a Jesuit school and trained as a lawyer, Rajoy turned to politics at a young age, joining the Popular Alliance Party, founded by sympathisers of former dictator Francisco Franco.

He was elected a regional official at the age of 26 and rose to serve in several national ministerial posts.

As one of the right-hand men of Jose Maria Aznar, the conservative prime minister from 1996 to 2004, Rajoy won prestige for his handling of a 2002 oil leak and Spain's role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He has admitted a fondness for cigars, cycling and Real Madrid Football Club.

Otherwise, about the most colourful event of his recent past was his escape from a minor helicopter crash near Madrid in December 2005, which left him with a dislocated middle finger.

The crisis has pushed economic management to the fore in election campaigning and has enabled Rajoy to play the statesman, taking a prominent role in reforms since the announcement of the snap election.

He joined with the Socialists in drawing up constitutional measures to control the budget deficit and has vowed in his election manifesto to tackle unemployment and stabilise Spain's public finances.

But Rajoy has been evasive about whether he would try to reverse social reforms that have marked the Socialists' eight years in power, such as loosening abortion laws and legalising of gay marriage.

"Rajoy doesn't make the decisions, the Popular Party leaders share the jobs to respond to a diverse electorate," political editorialist Jose Maria Ridao said.

"That is their strategy. The problem is it gives him the image of someone who doesn't know how to impose himself, and that can turn against him."

But Rajoy denies the characterisation.

"I take decisions when I think they have to be taken," he said in a recent press interview.

© 2011 AFP

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