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Profile: Esperanza Aguirre, Spain’s very own iron lady

The scourge of Basque and Catalan nationalists, and an ardent advocate of privatization, the head of the Madrid regional government has carved out a place for herself in the Popular Party as a kingmaker.


Esperanza Aguirre.

Illustration by Edward Marks.

Never one to miss the chance of a headline, last week Esperanza Aguirre, the Popular Party’s head of the regional government of Madrid, aroused the ire of Catalans and Basques when she called for the Copa del Rey soccer final to be played behind closed doors, “somewhere else”, rather than in the Spanish capital. Why? The likelihood of whistling and booing by fans of the two sides, Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, during the playing of the Spanish national anthem, as happened when the two sides faced each other three years ago in the final, in Valencia.

In the event, Aguirre took a rain check on the match, leaving Prince Felipe to stand stoically through the national anthem amid the catcalls from those who would tear Spain apart.

Born into the landed gentry, and married to Fernando Ramírez de Haro, 15th Count of Murillo, with whom she has two children, Aguirre plays down her advantaged background, instead projecting the image of a more glamorous version of Mrs Thatcher. Like the greengrocer’s daughter from Grantham, Aguirre is an economic liberal, and has steadily pushed ahead with privatizing health and education during her tenure as boss of Madrid; unlike Thatcher, Aguirre is also a social liberal, believing in the legalization of drugs and prostitution, for example.

But when it comes to social policy, Aguirre is an arch conservative: despite, or perhaps because of, the privileges she has enjoyed, she is vehemently opposed to legislation that helps the less fortunate. Commenting on the recent removal of educational subsidies and hikes in university tuition fees, she said: “intellectual and professional egalitarianism is an attack on individual freedoms”, adding: “egalitarian” schools and universities prevent “student progress”.

A rapid rise

She owes her start in politics to her mentor, economist and academic Pedro Schwartz, who founded the short-lived Liberal Union in the 1980s, a refuge for the neo-liberal right in the post-Franco years at a time when the Popular Party’s forerunner, the Popular Alliance, was still dominated by former members of Franco’s cabinets. She was elected as a councillor to Madrid City Hall in 1983 on behalf of the Liberal Union, but her political career really took off when she joined the Popular Alliance in 1987, which two years later would become the Popular Party (PP) when a young tax inspector from Valladolid called José María Aznar was handed the baton by its founder, former Franco minister Manuel Fraga. Two years later, the PP managed to oust the Socialist Party from Madrid City Hall, and Aguirre took over the sports, youth, culture, and education portfolio. She has never looked back.

When Aznar won the general election in 1996, he appointed her education minister. She moved on to become president of the Lower House, then taking over as premier of the regional government of Madrid in 2003 under controversial circumstances. The PP had won a narrow majority in the regional elections, but the Socialist Party and the United Left together had two more seats. They looked set to form a leftist coalition that would have consigned Aguirre to the opposition benches, until two Socialist Party deputies decided to cross the floor. Fresh elections had to be called, and this time, the PP won outright.

Aguirre’s approach to public relations might best be described as ad hoc. Last September she seemed ignorant of key aspects of how the education system works, saying that secondary school teachers “only” worked a 20-hour week, “much less than most Madrileños”.

Aguirre had previously made a rather sloppy attempt at communicating her decision to impose spending cuts of €80 million by sending a letter to affected civil servants riddled with spelling mistakes.

Since taking over in 2003, Aguirre has pushed ahead with the privatization of public healthcare. She inherited a healthcare system of more than 20 state-funded hospitals. Today, nearly one in three hospitals in the region is either partially or entirely privately run. Her administration ensures the provision of public healthcare, but it has washed its hands of management.

She has also proposed privatizing the city’s water company, the Canal Isabel II.

Returning powers to Madrid

Aguirre believes that what Spain needs is a return to centralization, with the central government taking back responsibility for health and education from the regions. She claims that by slimming down the regional administrations and getting rid of many public officials, the state could save around €48 billion. “If Spain needs to, education, health and justice should be handed back to the central government, and transport and social services to city halls,” said Aguirre in April. Health and education account for about 80 percent of the regions’ budgets.

Spain’s biggest problem, says Aguirre, is overspending by most of the country’s regional governments, though not, of course, her own. The regions were blamed for Spain failing to meet its budget deficit target last year of six percent by a full 2.5 percentage points. In 2011, Madrid was the Spanish region with the third-highest levels of debt (€15.191 billion).

Last month 97.2 percent of delegates at the Popular Party’s Madrid regional conference re-elected Esperanza Aguirre, the sole candidate, as their president, a post she has occupied since 2004. Now 60, and with 30 years in politics behind her, this wily political operator is at the top of her game, and has no intention of stepping aside any time soon. She’s made her peace with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, having fought to remove him from the party’s leadership during his two terms in opposition, and now looks set to use her powerbase as premier of the regional government of Madrid to take over City Hall in 2015, a post previously occupied by her other arch-rival, current Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón.

Secure in her position as regional leader, Aguirre can now play the role of kingmaker: the new generation of PP leaders, such as her number two, Ignacio González, or Cristina Cifuentes, the central government’s liaison with the regional administration, will require her support if they want her job when she steps down.

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Published: May 31 2012
Category: Politics, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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4 Comments for “Profile: Esperanza Aguirre, Spain’s very own iron lady”

  1. The ad top left covers some of the text.

  2. Aguirre the kingmaker? I’m not so sure. Everything depends on what happens with Rajoy’s position, but if Mariano manages to hang on then I think the only thing that awaits Espe is more time on one of the numerous golf courses her administration has sponsored.

    To move her to the ayuntamiento means finding a dignified way of giving Aznar’s wife the boot. A move like this made sense when Aznar did it with Gallardón because the latter had appeal beyond the PP’s core vote. Aguirre doesn’t have that cross-party appeal and could potentially be an additional vote loser if things are going badly for the national government.

    The important thing to remember is that the PP is not a federal party and Madrid is not Soria. So the national party has the last word on candidates for Madrid, Aguirre had very little influence over the general election lists for the capital. With Rajoy still in a strong position come the next regional elections I think she will be eased out. Rajoy doesn’t just like his revenge served cold, he likes to leave it in the freezer until he finishes reading Marca.

    Equally, Ignacio Gonzalez will not take over if Mariano is still in charge. Apart from having criticised the leader there are certain, ahem, character issues associated with him. Not that this is always an obstacle to advancement in the PP. Cifuentes could be a possibility, she seems to have managed to please both camps – not an easy thing to do. Lucia Figar is mentioned as a possibility but if she smiles too much at Rajoy she’ll be out on the street faster than you can say lideresa.

    Aguirre built her power base in Madrid by stuffing her administration with dozens of PP notables when they lost national power. But most of these people are not necessarily loyal to her. She had her chance in 2008 and she blew it. A major crisis for Rajoy’s government could easily change all of this, but Aguirre will not necessarily benefit – she’s made too many enemies and there is another generation waiting for their chance.

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