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Close-Up: Mariano Rajoy

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He has weathered every storm that’s come his way, including Spain’s current political crisis. But as  the plucky new-old prime minister gears up for another four years in office, major challenges still loom.

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© Artwort: Dominik Herrmann

A year ago, it seemed a most unlikely outcome. But after ten months of wrangling, Mariano Rajoy’s trademark patience has paid off once again: He was confirmed as prime minister of Spain for a second term on October 29. After two general elections ended in deadlock, the opposition Socialist party abstained on a vote of confidence, allowing Rajoy to form a minority government and begin four more years as prime minister.

Rajoy is the antithesis of the showy politician. Bearded and soft-spoken with a slight lisp, Spain’s prime minister is a survivor. He survives by waiting it out, by battening down the hatches until the tempest passes. In this way, he has weathered many a political storm, from losing two back-to-back general elections to facing myriad corruption scandals within his own party. He is a survivor in his private life, too, walking away from a helicopter crash in 2013 with nothing more than a broken finger. That perseverance has been put to the test in office.

Spain had been without a government since December 2015, when Rajoy’s center-right People’s Party (PP) won the general election but failed to reach an absolute majority. The rise of upstart parties Podemos (We Can) and Ciudadanos (Citizens) split the vote between four parties rather than the traditional two. And Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez rejected Rajoy’s plan to form a German-style “grand coalition” between right and left, forcing a second general election in June 2016. The results were no different, leaving Spain trapped in a political stalemate.

Rising through the Ranks

Mariano Rajoy Brey was born in the rainy northwestern region of Galicia in 1955 and, after studying law, quickly became the youngest Spanish property notary at 23. A car accident in the same year left him with serious injuries to his face; he grew his now signature beard to cover the scars. He left Galicia for Madrid and the world of politics and soon rose through the political ranks of Spain’s center-right PP, serving as minister of education and culture, minister of the interior, and deputy prime minister before he was handpicked by Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar to succeed him after the 2004 election.

But the party suffered a shock defeat, widely blamed on its handling of the 2004 Madrid bombings just three days before the election. Aznar and many in the PP, including Rajoy, immediately blamed the bombings on the Basque separatist group ETA. But Al Qaida was behind the attack, and voters punished the PP at the polls, ushering in the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and condemning Rajoy to two terms as leader of the opposition.

When Rajoy finally swept to victory in 2011, Spain’s economy was in shambles. The country’s housing bubble had burst and unemployment was at 23 percent and rising. A new protest movement was forming in response to the crisis, the Indignados (the indignant), an anti-austerity platform that would give rise to Podemos.

Rajoy’s first year in office was beset by one economic woe after another: unemployment climbing over 27 percent, an imploding banking sector and a crisis in public finances. He implemented a series of measures to boost the economy including freezing the minimum wage, cutting public sector jobs, and – going against a campaign promise – raising taxes. “For me raising taxes was a difficult and painful decision,” he told Spanish news agency EFE on breaking the election pledge. “We didn’t like doing it but it was absolutely necessary to stop the spiral.” His nightmare year got worse when he was forced to ask the EU for €100 billion to shore up the country’s ailing banks.

Then a number of corruption scandals hit the PP, seriously eroding Spaniards’ trust in the party. Rajoy himself was named in papers released in 2013: He was linked to a slush fund run by ex-PP treasurer Luis Bárcenas. Rajoy denied all involvement and, despite a petition signed by over a million Spaniards calling for his resignation, never came close to stepping down.
His survival might be attributed to the fact that corruption is far from a one party problem in Spain. Scandals have hit the opposition Socialists and even the royal family: King Felipe’s sister, Cristina, became the first royal to take the stand when she and her husband went on trial on corruption charges in early 2016.

The economy undoubtedly dominated Rajoy’s first term as prime minister but there was another significant challenge: Catalonia. The economic crisis and the conservative government’s absolute refusal to negotiate on a Scotland-style referendum spurred fresh calls for independence in the wealthy region. “No one is going to break up Spain in any way. No one is going to turn citizens of Catalonia into foreigners in their own country,” Rajoy said during a press conference in 2015. Rajoy even warned that Scotland would have to reapply for EU membership and claimed the country’s independence would worsen the EU’s economic slump.

Safe Pair of Hands

Rajoy is stereotypically Galician – he is closed off and cautious, and even his closest allies admit he lacks charisma. Despite regularly attending EU meetings, he has been quiet on the international stage. Some chalk that up to language issues. His poor English skills have been the butt of many jokes in Spain; eagle-eyed observers spotted rudimentary English homework on his desk during one televised interview.

Rajoy declined to take part in a debate with other party leaders ahead of the December 2015 election arguing he had been invited to over thirty debates and couldn’t honor them all. Spanish newspaper El País left a symbolic empty lectern in his place. He sent his deputy prime minister in his place to a second debate, fueling criticism of his lack of engagement with the public. He is the most unpopular among young Spaniards, who, according to a 2015 poll, hate Rajoy more than Spain’s former dictator, Francisco Franco.

On a political scene peppered with new parties offering a departure from the norm, Rajoy has sold himself as a safe pair of hands, someone Spaniards need to finish the job of fixing the economy – which continues to grow despite current political uncertainty. It’s true that Spain’s economy expanded by 3.2 percent in 2015 and is expected to do so at the same rate in 2016. Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in nearly seven years as Spain has become a rare bright spot in an otherwise stagnant eurozone. Brussels has praised Madrid’s austerity measures and structural reforms – but the recovery is far from complete, and EU officials are concerned the political instability will derail economic progress.

In October, Madrid admitted it would miss EU budget deficit targets, blaming the recent turmoil. In August, Spain narrowly avoided a fine for repeated breaches of budget rules.
And tightening the national belt has affected some of the most vulnerable. Spain has seen unprecedented numbers of home evictions as well as a rise in short-term contracts that offer little job security.

Four More Years

For his next four-year term, Rajoy is promising to create two million jobs as well as provide tax cuts and overhaul the public sector. But with a minority government, he could find it much more difficult to push through his desired changes.

And, as usual, corruption scandals are never far away; the latest one threatens to embarrass and fracture the PP. In early October Spain’s national court played host to 37 defendants – many high-profile figures within the PP – charged of fixing public tenders worth over €350 million. The case is so big it’s been split in two and will last for months. It will shine a light on the corruption that flourished during Spain’s boom years, leading to the real estate crisis and soaring unemployment. The case will be a daily reminder to Spaniards of the PP’s reputation for corruption and the part it played in causing Spain’s economic crisis – not an ideal start to Rajoy’s next premiership.

Rajoy is pro-European and in his next term will continue to oppose any talks between Scotland and the EU, fearing that Catalonia might be inspired to follow suit. Rajoy has also warned that once the UK leaves the single market and abandons free movement, the inhabitants of Gibraltar, the British enclave on the southern tip of Spain, will have to do so too – unless they approve shared sovereignty with Spain. Rajoy could see Brexit as a chance to finally push for shared sovereignty of Gibraltar, whose citizens voted almost unanimously to remain in the EU.
Rajoy champions his style of governing as calm and patient; his critics see a lack of action.

They point to his weak record during the eight years he spent in the opposition before becoming prime minister and to his “do nothing” approach on the Catalonia issue. Despite calls for him to stand down during the last ten months of political deadlock, he has stood firm. And his famous waiting game looks like it has paid off yet again.