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Who will be in charge for Rajoy’s great Spanish clean-up?

The prime minister-elect’s priorities are clear: restoring confidence in the Spanish economy and cutting the jobless line. But how he plans to go about these tasks remains a mystery, and it’s quite possible that the EU’s decision-makers will end up playing a major role.


In 2002, when the Prestige oil tanker sank off the coast of Galicia, Mariano Rajoy was the Popular Party (PP) government’s official spokesman and was designated to oversee the handling of the crisis. The administration faced heavy criticism from some quarters for its management of the event, not least when Rajoy asserted that the spill, which would eventually see 20 million gallons of oil pour into the sea, had produced little more than “little threads of oil that look like plasticine”.

Nine years on, Rajoy faces an even bigger task: to clean up Spain’s finances and oversee its economic recovery, while maintaining the support of sceptical Spaniards and the approval of a crisis-ravaged eurozone. The Prestige made him and the government he was part of appear inclined to downplay disaster, but as he prepares to govern Spain, he needs to shake off the image of passivity that has dogged him over the last decade.

Mariano Rajoy

Rajoy: Looking for guidance?

“I’m a normal man,” was Rajoy’s mantra when he spoke to the PP-sympathetic ABC newspaper in 2002, just as the Prestige disaster was raging. For much of his political career, convincing Spaniards that he is one of them has been his challenge. This Galician’s stiff, formal manner and his precocious career, which saw him become Spain’s youngest ever land registrar at 24, before holding five ministerial posts, make it tempting to think that he has been a bearded, bespectacled politician since birth.

In 2008, shortly before his second electoral defeat at the hands of Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, he worked hard to change that perception. The effort backfired. In a televised campaign debate he spoke of his hopes for a (theoretical) little girl growing up in modern Spain, in what would soon become a much-derided monologue. “Rajoy’s girl” became shorthand for the conservative candidate’s failure to connect with Spaniards.

If nothing else, Europe’s debt crisis has shown that it can sweep away political leaders of different stripes and styles. If Rajoy is to succeed, he needs to show Spaniards not that he is another one of them, but that he is supremely prepared for the job, with the right abilities – and just as crucially – the right team. Despite having won an outright majority, securing his party’s biggest ever share of congressional seats, the prime minister-elect has not yet demonstrated either.

“(Rajoy) won because he’s the leader of the alternative party. He won because Spaniards didn’t want the Socialists to continue,” Josep Lobera, an analyst with polling firm Metroscopia, told Iberosphere. “The PP didn’t win the election, the Socialists lost the election. The Socialist Party in the three-and-a-half years since the last election, have lost about 40 percent of their support.”

That rejection of the Socialists allowed Rajoy to keep a remarkably low profile in the run up to the election. It also let him maintain a studied ambiguity (a trait often attributed to Galicians by other Spaniards) over his economic plans. But a low profile and ambiguity are exactly what Spain doesn’t need right now. Spaniards and Brussels are going to want to know where billions in spending cuts are going to come from in 2012.

Castilla-La Mancha: the example for Spain?

The Popular Party in general has not helped the cause so far in that area. Some, such as Gustavo Arístegui, have pointed to little more than the number of official cars that are in use as the cause of the public deficit. A more honest response, perhaps, has come from María Dolores de Cospedal, the PP’s number two and since the summer, the premier of the financially challenged region of Castilla-La Mancha. She has announced a massive program of cuts to everything from the healthcare system to the Don Quijote Tourism Association. Perhaps tellingly, she also suggested her economic plan was “an example for Spain.”

Ensuring that his at times unruly party speaks with one voice will be another challenge for Rajoy. In recent years it has been plagued by the Gürtel corruption scandal in several regions. Rajoy’s response to this, depending on your point of view, was either to patiently allow the scandal to run and fade (which it did, but only to an extent) or to freeze in the headlights and not act at all.

There are also a handful of maverick party characters forever ready to put the undynamic Rajoy in the shade, such as former Prime Minister José María Aznar, who in the past has expressed concern at how the PP was being led, and Madrid regional premier Esperanza Aguirre, who appeared to mount a half-baked leadership bid in 2008. Belligerent figures such as Esteban González Pons, who recently called Socialist voters “idiots”, may serve as lightning conductors for the party leader, but they could become liabilities if not sternly managed.

All of this would seem to demand decisiveness and boldness of thought from the man who, according to some reports, decided to resign after his 2008 election defeat before changing his mind and staying on as PP leader.

Rajoy’s mystery Cabinet

His Cabinet and governing team will be key. Rajoy may be learning basic English and has promised to “put Spain at the head of Europe”, but it’s hard to see this travel-averse politician, who leans heavily on rehearsal rather than spontaneity, relishing regular trips to Brussels to drive a hard bargain with Angela Merkel. Such work could be carried out instead by the future foreign or finance minister. Neither has been named, with a carousel of names now circulating as favourites for the posts. Another key appointment will be that of the minister responsible for coordinating with the 17 regional governments, which could face new austerity challenges of their own under the new administration.

With no ministers yet named, other governments – foreign and regional – do not yet know with whom they will be dealing when Spain’s tortuously long transferral of power is completed, probably just before Christmas.

Another, painful, factor to remember is that Rajoy is likely to have to park some of his rather vague campaign promises until outstanding obligations to Brussels are fulfilled. He has identified reining in the deficit, job creation and galvanising business as priorities, but it’s hard to see him getting down to the last two objectives until the first mission is accomplished.

The prime minister-elect may have to face up to the fact that while this crisis is crashing over Spanish shores, Spain alone will struggle to resolve it. Unlike the Prestige, the clean-up effort probably won’t be coordinated from Madrid; it’s more likely to come at the orders of Brussels or Berlin.

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Published: Nov 28 2011
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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