Persistence pays for Spain election favourite Rajoy

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Critics call him boring, but Mariano Rajoy has made a virtue of persistence that is likely to pay off on November 20 when Spaniards are expected to elect him prime minister -- third time lucky.

The conservative opposition leader, 56, was beaten twice to the post by outgoing premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in 2004 and 2008, but now voters want to punish Zapatero's government for its economic management.

Polls rank Rajoy, of the centre-right Popular Party (PP), well ahead of his Socialist opponent, Alfredo Rubalcaba, even though critics brand the grey-bearded, lisping Rajoy a dull figure with few tricks up his sleeve.

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 straight-forward, 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 forerunner of today's PP, 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 defending the government on issues such as 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.

Spain's economy is in a dire state with unemployment at more than 21 percent following the bursting of a real estate bubble in 2008 after a decade of astonishing growth.

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 took part 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.

He 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 PP leaders share the jobs to respond to a diverse electorate," political editorialist Jose Maria Ridao told AFP.

"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."

Rajoy insisted in an recent press interview: "I take decisions when I think they have to be taken."

© 2011 AFP

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