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'Hard times' await Spain's PM-designate after landslide win

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

For a man who just won a huge landslide, this may prove to be the shortest honeymoon period in modern electoral history.

Mariano Rajoy's victory as Spanish prime minister Sunday night was overwhelming: His right-wing Popular Party won 186 seats in Madrid's 350-seat legislature, wiping out eight years of rule by social-democratic Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose harsh budget cuts failed to stanch a financial crisis in which a quarter of Spain's working population are jobless and a million people are in danger of losing their houses.

This was a long-awaited victory for Mr. Rajoy, whose bearded, low-key visage has led Spaniards to liken him in appearance and style to a Scottish vicar.

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His last attempt to challenge Mr. Zapatero, in 2008, foundered after his party's far-right faction, some of whom are openly nostalgic for dictator Francisco Franco, gained considerable press attention over religious and social issues. This time, the issues were all economic, and his party's liberal-conservative branch led the way to an easy victory.

But he will have little time to savour it. After a brief moment of victory on Sunday night in which he giddily hopped up and down for cameras, the media quickly turned on him. Both the conservative newspaper ABC and the more centre-left El Pais devoted their pages not to victory messages but to demands that the new Prime Minister reveal his economic plans, which had been decidedly vague during the campaign.

And hours later, the world's bond markets delivered a darker message. Spanish bond yields rose 0.12 per cent on Monday, to 6.56 per cent, or 4.86 per cent above the price of a German bond, putting Spain on the edge of what is usually considered the crisis point – and showing that markets were not willing to give the new prime minister what some investors called a "Rajoy relief rally."

This means that Mr. Rajoy will have to cut straight to the bad news: He will almost certainly have to deliver a speech to Spaniards, probably within 48 hours, in which he announces unprecedented levels of austerity.

While he was vague throughout the campaign on his plans, he had made it clear that he preferred austerity over growth-boosting measures. And while he tempered this by promising tax cuts, it seems highly unlikely that Madrid can starve itself of tax revenue at the moment.

Mr. Rajoy told supporters Sunday night that he would "Bring back the Spanish pride in life." But it looks like he will have to lead his voters rather immediately on another voyage of humiliation.

"Hard times lie ahead," he admitted. "We are going to govern in the most delicate situation Spain has faced in 30 years." And unlike any other Prime Minister who has won a nationwide majority, for Mr. Rajoy the hard times lay only a few hours away.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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