Rajoy’s difficult year
The Spanish prime minister was facing a stiff challenge when he took power 12 months ago. So far, the benefits of his peculiar approach to governing are hard to see.
By Guy Hedgecoe
A year after he took office on December 21, 2011, many Spaniards would be forgiven for asking: who is Mariano Rajoy? His first 12 months in power have been so full of contradictions that a clear image of the Spanish prime minister is yet to emerge.
His conservative Partido Popular (PP) has one of the biggest congressional majorities Spain has seen. And with it, his government has embarked on one of the boldest reform programs of the democratic era, with opponents frequently accusing it of authoritarianism. Yet still Rajoy is seen as hesitant and equivocal, a politician being led by events and EU orders, rather than leading his people.
“Mariano Rajoy governs without his own voice, following instructions from outside … and shielded by the chant that ‘there’s no alternative’ and ‘we are doing what has to be done’,” wrote columnist and broadcaster Josep Ramoneda, summing up an increasingly common view of the prime minister. “His favourite sport is following the route that others set for him and letting time pass, trusting that some invisible hand will compensate for his impotence.”
Much of the evidence against Rajoy is based on his personal image as much as his political actions. Television is not kind to him: in the spring, it captured him freezing like a startled deer as he faced a pack of reporters waiting outside the Senate before bolting out of the back door; and in his very occasional press conferences, Rajoy often ends up performing clumsy verbal acrobatics. The reports of him shutting himself away in his office with only a sports newspaper for company as the debt crisis approached disastrous levels are anecdotal, yet all too easy to believe.
Bewildered by the crisis
Throughout the 2011 election campaign and in the wake of his resounding victory, Rajoy made clear that Spain’s economic crisis would be his biggest challenge. But he also seemed to trust in the idea that replacing a discredited Socialist administration with a conservative government would automatically reassure the markets and steady the economy. As Spain’s credit risk premium and unemployment rate continued to spike mercilessly in 2012, the prime minister often appeared as bewildered and frustrated as his voters.
This belief that a new conservative broom would have a galvanising effect on the economy perhaps helps explain some of the delays and apparent indecision that have marked Rajoy’s tenure and which started even before he took power, with his bizarrely slow Cabinet appointments.
If that was attributed to a new administration settling in, the delay of the 2012 budget, which had already been postponed due to the general elections, was more deliberate. The government argued that it needed time to process the messy accounts left by the Socialists. There may have been a grain of truth in that, but the real reason was that Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP) wanted to win a major regional election in Andalusia before announcing nationwide cuts. This insistence on prioritising party politics backfired and the PP were kept out of power in the south by a leftist coalition, while Europe impatiently awaited what was a key budget.
Likewise, reforms to the banking sector came, but later than many had hoped. And as a financial crisis unravelled in the spring, an EU bailout looked increasingly likely. Rajoy and his economy minister, Luis de Guindos, were desperate to avoid such a fate, given the stigma of being compared to the likes of Greece, Ireland and Portugal. As a result, when the request for a rescue came, we were told that this was “not a bailout”, but a “line of credit”, or “assistance from our European partners”, and so on, in a now familiar policy of playing down bad news with stretched euphemisms.
Avoiding the full bailout
Since that financial bailout was announced, talk of a full, sovereign, rescue has at times reached fever pitch. Yet despite its apparent inevitability, Rajoy has resisted. Three or four months ago, few would have bet on Spain reaching year’s end without formally requesting the European Central Bank’s help in keeping its borrowing costs down, even though many in the private sector bridle at the still high interest they have to pay.
Yet while there is a feeling that Rajoy’s resistance is based somewhat on stubborn national pride rather than sheer economic cunning, if Spain does somehow continue to stave off the bailout and the risk premium is kept under control, his supporters will argue that his patience and refusal to cave in to the seemingly inevitable will have paid off.
They use the same argument regarding Rajoy’s controversial labour reform, which makes hiring and firing easier. So far it is the latter which has increased in 2012, with unemployment rising from 21 percent to over 25 percent. If the OECD’s forecast that the jobless rate will rise to 26.9 percent next year and stay around there in 2014 is reliable, then Rajoy’s long-term promise to tackle the jobless line will look as empty as his labour reform.
The prime minister’s repeated breaking of promises has damaged his credibility. His catalogue of U-turns – in sensitive areas such as social spending and tax hikes – may have been due to genuine economic improvisation rather than cynicism, but Spaniards’ trust in him has been severely eroded. While the PP has slipped 13 points to 31 percent since the end of 2011, according to Metroscopia’s voting intention polls, Rajoy himself has an approval rating of 25 percent.
But the government has been hurt as much by its style of communicating as its policy content. The double-headed nature of the economy portfolio, with De Guindos often appearing to be undermined by Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro, clearly doesn’t make sense when Spain should be speaking with one clear voice. An absurd spat between Montoro and Energy Minister José Manuel Soria in the summer highlighted the lack of coordination.
Delegating, or hiding?
But there’s also a problem of tone. Rajoy delegates most big announcements, either to De Guindos or Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, and the latter has an unfortunate habit of appearing to be addressing a room full of children when unveiling painful cuts or controversial reforms. This compounds the idea that Rajoy is hiding, rather than delegating. His own rather defensive performances, on the rare occasions that he does take journalists’ questions, suggest he has been poorly prepared by his team.
Meanwhile, members of his Cabinet and other senior government figures can appear unnecessarily aggressive, even belligerent, whether dealing with indignados protesters or Catalan separatists.
The idea has taken root among Spaniards that it is Brussels – or Angela Merkel – who is leading their country, not the man they voted in a year ago. This was a problem for Rajoy’s predecessor Zapatero at the end of his government, but the current prime minister may have to get used to living with this politically damaging notion in the long term.
The very nature of the challenges facing Rajoy when he took power a year ago meant that he was never going to have anything like a smooth first 12 months in power. He can point to some achievements – coming close to meeting EU-set public deficit targets for 2012, cutting some red tape for businesses, finally getting to grips with the banking sector – but for now, the overall impression is that this crisis has been too much for him.
When he was campaigning to become prime minister in his home region of Galicia last year, Rajoy told the story of how one woman implored: “Mariano, make us happy again!” He replied: “From now on, that will be my objective.” As Spain continues to lurch through its crisis, Rajoy has clearly failed according to that admittedly daunting yardstick. After a torrid year, he still has everything to prove.
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Published: Dec 12 2012
Category: Featured, Politics, Spain News
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Tags: economic crisis, Mariano Rajoy, Partido Popular, PP, reforms, spain austerity, spain business, spain economy, spain government