Rajoy, the under-estimated survivor who wore his rivals down
Madrid, Spain | AFP |
Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy won back power Saturday, at the age of 61, after a war of attrition against younger rivals who under-estimated his resistance after 35 years in politics.
Just like in 2005 when he emerged from a helicopter crash with just a broken finger, Rajoy survived an unprecedented political crisis that left Spain without a fully-functioning government for 10 months.
In power since 2011, his Popular Party (PP) lost its absolute majority in inconclusive December 2015 elections even though it came first. Since then Rajoy had headed up a caretaker government as no party managed to form a viable coalition.
He made use of that time to vaunt Spain’s return to growth under his watch, after the country came close to economic collapse, and warned against a return to power for the Socialists, whom he links to the crisis’s darkest days.
‘Uncharismatic’ but discerning
During his 2011-2015 mandate, Rajoy was nicknamed “the plasma prime minister” after he conducted press conferences via video screen to avoid sensitive questions on issues such as the corruption afflicting his party.
“The headline could be: 300 days later, the boring plasma prime minister knocks out the three young emerging leaders who had come to eat him alive,” said Anton Losada, politics professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela.
Faced with three young rivals — Socialist chief Pedro Sanchez, 44, the 38-year-old leader of far-left Podemos Pablo Iglesias, and centrist Ciudadanos head Albert Rivera, 36 — he slammed them as “amateurs.”
Playing on fears of change as Spain emerged from the crisis, his party came first in December polls and did even better in repeat elections in June, just days after Britain voted to leave the European Union.
“It’s obvious that he is an uncharismatic leader but he has perfect control of time and incredible knowledge of the decision-making process,” said Narciso Michavila, an expert in electoral analysis who has advised Rajoy.
He saw “very clearly” that the rivalry between Iglesias and Sanchez would stop them from forming a left-wing government and “he left everyone fight it out,” he added.
Then last weekend, the Socialists — divided and under pressure — ousted Sanchez and opted to let Rajoy rule at the head of a minority government by abstaining in Saturday’s parliamentary confidence vote.
Born in 1955 in Santiago de Compostela in the conservative, northwestern Galicia region, Rajoy is the eldest son of a provincial court president.
Trained as a lawyer, Rajoy turned to politics at a young age, joining the Popular Alliance, the party founded by ministers of former dictator Francisco Franco which later became the PP.
He later became the right-hand man of Jose Maria Aznar, who was Spanish leader from 1996 to 2004, serving in several ministerial posts.
As spokesman for the government in the later years of Aznar’s leadership, Rajoy shielded him from criticism over his handling of the 2002 Prestige tanker spill or Spain’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Aznar appointed him as his successor, but Rajoy went on to lose two general elections to the Socialists before voters finally handed him the premiership in 2011 as Spain suffered the ravages of the crisis.
In a rare television chat on his personal life before the December elections, Rajoy said he never had many girlfriends, although he eventually married in his early forties and has two sons.
In politics, he has been described as a “rigid” and even “uncompromising” prime minister by people close to Sanchez and leaders in Catalonia, Spain’s wealthy northeastern region where an independence movement has gathered pace since Rajoy came to power.
But as he looks for support for his minority government — the PP only has 137 parliamentary seats out of 350 — Rajoy has promised “dialogue” with his rivals.
Still, he appears unwilling to modify the course of his economic policies marked by sweeping spending cuts — the reason why upstart Podemos, born in 2014 out of vociferous anti-austerity protests, rose as quickly as it did.