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Spain's centre-right People's Party (Partido Popular) leader Mariano Rajoy acknowledges supporters from a balcony of the party headquarters. (Juan Medina/Reuters/Juan Medina/Reuters)
Spain's centre-right People's Party (Partido Popular) leader Mariano Rajoy acknowledges supporters from a balcony of the party headquarters. (Juan Medina/Reuters/Juan Medina/Reuters)

Politics

Cautious moderate elected new leader to guide Spain through debt crisis Add to ...

Mariano Rajoy, who will become Spain’s new prime minister after a sweeping election victory, is a cautious moderate who makes an unlikely crisis manager for a country engulfed in the euro zone’s debt crisis.

The colourless 56-year-old former interior minister struggles to crack a smile and his overwhelming victory was built more on mistakes by the Socialists, in power for the past seven years, than on his own vision or inspiration.

His centre-right People’s Party won the biggest majority for any party in three decades after voters savagely punished the Socialists for economic woes that have pushed the unemployment rate to 22 per cent, highest in the European Union. The country is expected to head back into recession next year.

Mr. Rajoy will not be sworn in until Dec. 20, after what could be an agonizing transition if volatile markets push Spain’s borrowing costs even higher because of the uncertainty.

The markets are looking to Mr. Rajoy for swift action to prevent Spain being sucked deeper into the euro zone debt crisis. Last Thursday the country had to pay 6.98 per cent interest to buyers of a 10-year bond, just shy of the 7 per cent mark seen as untenable.

Mr. Rajoy, who studied law and worked as a land registrar before getting into politics in his mid-20s, is better known for self-restraint, for listening carefully to advisers and for preaching patience than for taking strong initiatives or inspiring his followers.

The son of a judge, Mr. Rajoy has the impenetrable demeanour typical of his native Galicia in northern Spain, where people are famed for their reserve and for answering a question with a question.

“He will make the right decisions, but as in the rest of the European Union right now, the question is whether the decisions can be made in time,” said Jose Maria Areilza, dean of the IE law school in Madrid.

Mr. Rajoy, who has little international experience and limited English, is expected to name a heavyweight economy minister to deepen painful austerity measures at home and travel abroad to persuade investors that Spain has its accounts in order.

After being elected to several local and regional posts in Galicia in the 1980s, Mr. Rajoy moved to Madrid and served in four different ministerial posts under Jose Maria Aznar, Spain’s pro-Washington prime minister from 1996-2004.

Mr. Aznar named Rajoy to succeed him as party leader, and if it had not been for an Islamist attack on Madrid commuter trains three days before the 2004 parliamentary election, he would probably already have been prime minister before now.

Mr. Aznar blamed Basque separatist group ETA for the train bombings, which were carried out by Islamist extremists, handing a surprise victory to the Socialists. Mr. Rajoy ran and lost again in 2008 and was savaged even by the right-wing press.

But he survived an attempt to oust him, quietly getting rid of the old Aznar conservatives and moving the PP toward the centre. His discreet power plays and pragmatic independence differentiate him from typical PP leaders, known for their ideological force or authoritarian style.

“He’s a long-distance runner, not a sprinter, and the economic crisis needs long-distance runners,” said member of parliament Jose Maria Lassalle, a PP moderate, contrasting Mr. Rajoy with his Socialist rival Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, who was a sprinter in his youth.

“He embodies a type of soft power, little inclined to impose things, more about convincing, and that’s what Spain needs right now most of all,” said Lassalle, who has known Rajoy for eight years.

Mr. Rajoy should be in tune with Europe’s current, mostly conservative, leaders. However, some critics complain he has not sufficiently fostered a relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel – a key ally as Spain and the entire eurozone try to fend off market attacks.

Mr. Rajoy, who has a beard first grown when the scars from a serious car accident prevented him from shaving, is married with two children.

Schooled by Roman Catholic nuns, he laments the decline of Latin studies in Spanish schools. His stable provincial family background appears to make it difficult for him to relate to young Spaniards frustrated with a youth jobless rate of more than 40 per cent.

He is dismissive of the “Indignados” (or Indignant) movement that took over public squares in May to protest against the political status quo and inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement worldwide.

Until recently the reserved Mr. Rajoy had a dismal approval rating in opinion polls as Spaniards questioned whether he understood their problems. But perceptions have lifted as voters turned to his party to heal the economy.

“Who cares if he is boring if he’s winning?” said one of his advisers, who asked not to be named.

Reuters

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