Spain's likely new leader: A master of ambiguity

November 20, 2011 - 4:40 PM
Spain Elections

Conservative Popular Party candidate Mariano Rajoy waves after voting at a voting station in Madrid, Sunday Nov, 20, 2011. Spaniards are voting Sunday in the general elections likely to oust the ruling Socialists in favor of the conservative Popular Party. (AP Photo/Paul White)

MADRID (AP) — Spain's likely new prime minister is a lusterless career politician who thrives on ambiguity — rarely revealing what he thinks.

With partial results Sunday night showing that his conservative Popular Party ousted the ruling Socialist party and was on track to winning a parliamentary majority, Mariano Rajoy may finally be forced to show his hand.

Rajoy is set to inherit a devastating economic downturn that has caused unemployment to swell to more than 21 percent, and comes as similar financial crises in fellow EU nations like Greece and Italy threaten to combine with Spain's woes and drag down the global economy.

As Rajoy, 56, begins forming the next government Monday, all eyes will be on whether the gray-bearded, bespectacled leader will finally unveil a clear political vision or continue to dodge efforts to pin him down.

Many see him as a the perfect caricature of his native region — Galicia. The people of the misty and rainy northwestern region are legendary for pokerfaced obscurity. According to a Spanish saying, when you meet a Galician on the stairs you can never tell if he's going up or down.

"He is a Galician. They say things but you have to read between the lines," said Rodrigo Herrero, 48, a villa caretaker.

"He's not spontaneous or extroverted like other politicians," added Herrero. "He lacks that friendliness and touch of charm."

Others says there is a hidden side.

"He's a master because he achieves his aims without apparently doing anything," Xavier Pomes, a Catalan politician and friend of Rajoy, told El Pais, Spain's leading newspaper.

"He's sensible, frank. Some see him as indolent and indecisive but in reality he's reflexive," said Pomes.

But true to his cagey character, Rajoy has so far made little known of his plans. And with bond interest rates soaring and stock markets jittery, he is not likely to have any more time to dawdle or fudge.

In a lengthy interview in El Pais on Thursday, Rajoy said that barring pensions, "cuts will have to be made wherever they can." But the paper pointed out that he "maintained his ambiguity on what sacrifices Spaniards will face."

Eurasia Group analyst Antonio Barroso expects Rajoy to initially go for a "shock and awe strategy" with "quick policy changes in an effort to impress markets and his European partners, and boost Spanish credibility."

That would also dispel questions about his own credibility.

Rajoy, a property registrar by training, held four ministerial portfolios — among them education and interior — in the governments of Jose Maria Aznar between 1996 and 2004. But being hand-picked as party leader in 2003 by Aznar set Rajoy up for years to accusations that he was never actually elected by those in his party, a smear that weakened his attempts to shake himself free of Aznar's shadow.

Sunday's ballot was third-time lucky for Rajoy. He lost general elections in 2004 and 2008 against Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who is now deeply unpopular and did not seek re-election this time. In many ways, it's a tribute to his dogged determination to survive.

In 2004, Rajoy was also strongly tipped to win. But he lost amid voter outrage over the Madrid terror bombings by Islamic militants three days before the election. The massacre killed 191 people. Rajoy and his party had initially blamed Basque separatists and continued to do so even as evidence of Islamic involvement emerged.

The party was devastated by the defeat and Rajoy had to battle to keep it unified amid divisions between moderate and more conservative factions. The 2008 loss, although not as severe, exacerbated his tenuous position, thrusting even normally friendly rightist media against him.

But Rajoy fought on, skillfully remaining silent while his party and the media were ablaze with the succession debate. His efforts bore fruit at a party congress in June when his candidacy as leader — albeit the only one presented — was backed by 84 percent of delegates.

A cycling and sports enthusiast, Rajoy has freely acknowledged he reads little and prefers light sports dailies to mainstream newspapers or literature. However, sensing he may soon be representing Spain on the international stage, he is now studying English, a language none of his predecessors has ever managed to command.

At 24, he suffered a serious car accident that left his face badly scarred, reportedly the reason he grew the beard.

Stiff in manner, Rajoy has never topped popularity polls and is not known for imagination or charm. In a recent TV debate with his Socialist opponent Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, Rajoy almost never took his eyes off prepared notes. Nevertheless he scraped through the near two-hour clash, skirting questions and shedding no light on his program.

No one can deny Sunday's apparent victory came easy, with his opponents in the governing Socialist party crippled by their inability to cope with the economic crisis.

Over the past two years, Rajoy used the crisis to perfection in weekly parliamentary debates, hammering away relentlessly at the Zapatero government's perceived incompetence.

But careful not to scare potential voters, Rajoy remained virtually mute on what he would do differently besides pledging to make things easier for small and medium-sized businesses — which provide 80 percent of employment in Spain — and indicating he will carry out the labor market and social welfare system reforms he deems necessary.

Outside the economy, he has traditionally been a close ally of the Catholic Church on moral and social issues and has repeatedly said he will revise Spain's abortion law. His party has also appealed the country's gay marriage law before the Constitutional Court. Both bills were considered key achievements of the Zapatero governments.

In the past, he has demanded strict law-and-order measures to control immigration and education reforms to improve one of Europe's worst dropout rates.

A lover of Cuban cigars, Rajoy has also suggested he may ease Spain's anti-smoking ban in the workplace.

On foreign policy, he is likely to try to win back the special friend status Aznar held with U.S. while taking a less open approach than Zapatero to some of the more radically left-leaning governments of Latin America such as Cuba and Venezuela.

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Jorge Sainz contributed to this report.