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Aznar lets his hair down

The former Spanish prime minister is enjoying life as a high-earning poster boy of neo-conservative values. But having put his famed austerity behind him, Aznar is in danger of remaining a divisive political figure, who refuses to embrace the statesmanship befitting a retired national leader.

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Question: who works for Rupert Murdoch, leads a prestigious think-tank, is an accomplished long-distance runner and learned to speak fluent English in his early fifties?

Answer: José María Aznar, prime minister of Spain between 1996 and 2004. The above description is highly selective, of course, but it gives an idea of the man we are talking about – probably just the kind of idea Aznar himself would like us to have of him: an active figure on the right-leaning world stage whose discipline and motivation have given him influence and a well-honed body.

Aznar answers his critics.

Aznar, 57, has become something of a fetish figure for many on the Spanish right, and with good reason. He governed for two consecutive terms and oversaw eight of the most prosperous years the Spanish economy has seen, as the property sector ballooned almost perfectly in step with his administration. He then left the political stage a winner, voluntarily refraining from running for a third term, while his Popular Party was enjoying a majority in Congress (it was after all Mariano Rajoy, not Aznar, who lost the 2004 election, technically speaking). Aznar’s decision to select Rajoy as his successor has arguably transpired to be an error of judgement, but on the other hand, the current PP leader makes his former boss look both charismatic and electorally successful.

But since stepping down as prime minister, Aznar’s famous self-control has not always been evident. More recently, he has on occasion behaved anything like a former prime minister and more like a man desperate for attention or determined to settle scores. In February 2010 he spoke at an event in Oviedo where a group of students heckled him before they were forcibly removed from the venue. As Aznar was leaving, the same students continued to berate him and his response was to smirk and raise his middle finger at them – a gesture that a photographer captured. “Some people just can’t live without me,” he mused. Last month, he sparked controversy by stating that the current system of Spanish autonomous communities was “not viable”, leaving members of the Popular Party he once led scrambling to play down his words, especially with nationwide local elections looming in May.

Others are offended by a less political side to his exhibitionism: shoving a pen into the cleavage of a young television journalist who was trying to ask him a question, showing off his torso on board Flavio Briatore’s yacht, or planting a large Spanish flag outside his house in Marbella. These actions reinforce the image his detractors have of a crass ultra-capitalist whose petty patriotism is only outdone by his poor taste.

Aznar and the reporter’s bra:

The upshot of all this is that we are left with a confusing notion of Aznar the man. But while his personality is a mystery, his politics remain constant. He leads the robustly conservative FAES think-tank (which only recently fell out of Pennsylvania University’s list of the world’s top 50 research institutions). He is also on the board of directors of News Corporation and has given classes on European politics and trans-Atlantic relations in his role as a Georgetown University Distinguished Scholar, having learned to speak good English more or less from scratch. These entries on his CV underline his unusual status as what is effectively a Spanish neo-con.

Aznar’s determination to befriend George W. Bush was widely lampooned in the build-up to the Iraq invasion – especially when he returned from a US visit speaking Spanish with a hint of a Texan drawl. But while Aznar’s personal complexities may partly explain his Washington fixation, his ideological convictions do in fact place him quite firmly alongside America’s last president.

Let’s examine some of the evidence: although Madrid’s 2004 terrorist massacre occurred on his watch, Aznar presents himself as inflexible on terrorism and even hostile to Islam (“I’ve never heard a Muslim apologise to me for having conquered Spain and staying in Spain for eight centuries,” he has said); he also has utter contempt for the global warming lobby (climate change is “a scientifically questionable…new religion”); he hates big government telling him what to do (“who told you that I want you to drive my car for me…the glasses of wine that I have to drink – leave me alone and let me drink them”); and let’s not forget, in gleefully deploying troops to take back the islet of Perejil from a group of Moroccan soldiers in 2002, he oversaw an international military operation that many saw as ludicrous and politically motivated. A photograph of the Perejil triumph reportedly adorns his desk at his FAES office.

And in case doubts remain about his alignment with the right wing fringes of the US Republican party, he called Barack Obama’s election an “historic exoticism” which would lead to economic disaster.

Aznar seems utterly comfortable in his current role. He makes a lot of money, from his News Corp. salary, his family business and other incomes. He travels widely, especially across the United States and Latin America. He is young for a former prime minister and still commands attention, if not from the international media, then certainly the Spanish press.

The lost souls of Moncloa

But he also encapsulates a fundamental problem that has arisen since the democratic transition and which seems to show no sign of going away: what does Spain do with its former prime ministers?

Adolfo Suárez has been a relatively low-key figure in recent years, mainly due to his health. However, Felipe González has famously struggled to find a satisfactory role for himself since Aznar beat him in the 1996 election. The former Socialist leader has been something of a lost soul, writing rambling opinion columns in the national press and books with titles such as “My idea of Europe” (I can’t claim to have read it, but few things fill me with as much dread as the idea of doing so). He has also been a sniping, often difficult, presence for fellow Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who once said, surely in reference to González: “The silence of a former prime minister is highly valued.”

And Aznar shows no sign of wanting to maintain a dignified silence, either. On the contrary, this decidedly un-austere version of him delights in calling Zapatero “the pyromaniac in chief” and describing the prime minister’s inter-faith dialogue initiative as “stupid”. He has even taken the opportunity to put Rajoy in the shade, as was the case at the PP’s 2008 annual conference. More recently, Wikileaks cables revealed that he would mull a return to frontline politics if the circumstances were right. So, little sign of the former PP leader creating a Clinton-esque library in his retirement, or setting up the Aznar Peace Foundation.

For post-politics dignity, Aznar could do worse than regard the man he overlooked when choosing a successor, Rodrigo Rato. The former IMF head is a weighty presence on the world stage and yet in Spain he has been careful to avoid the tribal sniping of domestic politics since leaving the government in 2004.

However, his former boss Aznar risks making his own admirable decision to retire in 2004 look in retrospect like a half-measure as he repeatedly insists on raising his voice in the public sphere. It’s quite clear now: he doesn’t know when to stop.





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