Spain's new PM an unlikely manager

2011-11-23 16:33

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Madrid - If you say "it's raining," to a Galician, he will respond "is it?"

That's the stereotype of the reserved, impenetrable character of people from the damp region of Galicia at the northwest tip of Spain.

And it's a good clue to the leadership style of Spain's next prime minister, centre-right People's Party leader Mariano Rajoy, elected in a landslide on Sunday to lead the country during an impending economic disaster.

A cautious moderate, Rajoy is an unlikely manager for a crisis that demands swift action. One in five workers is out of a job and borrowing costs have soared to unsustainable levels with a devastating potential break-up of the euro currency zone looming over Europe.

Rajoy, 56, grew up in a traditional, provincial family. In the autobiography he put out this year the only hint of youthful rebellion was a hitch-hiking adventure to Barcelona. But even then, he asked his father, a judge, for permission to go.

"I'm Mr Normal," he has told people trying to work through his cryptic demeanour.

Veteran of Spanish politics

A once-avid cycler and fan of the Real Madrid football team, he smokes the occasional cigar. After losing his second race to lead the country in 2008 he survived ugly attacks from members of his own party.

His conformity makes him seem stiff and old-fashioned - he laments the decline of Latin in the schools - and he struggles to relate to frustrated young Spaniards who took to the streets this year to protest their grim job prospects.

Even though he's been on the national political scene for more than 20 years, Rajoy's perspective has never fully moved beyond the cocoon of his middle-class provincial upbringing.

He and all three of his younger siblings moved smoothly into the meritocracy after a Roman Catholic schooling.

Rajoy (pronounced RAH-HOI) wears a beard that covers the scars from a serious car accident that prevented him from shaving after it happened.

Limited impact

He studied law and his first job was as a land registrar, which even his friends admit is dreadfully dull. Like many of his generation he got into politics inspired by the political ferment of Spain's transition to democracy after dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975.

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

Critics say the prudent Rajoy had limited impact in his political jobs, such as education minister, and that Aznar promoted him as a cabinet member who would not overshadow him.

Rajoy was Aznar's deputy in 2002 during the country's biggest environmental disaster, when the Prestige tanker went down off the coast of Galicia spilling oil that lapped up on Spanish beaches. The opposition and the media criticized him for downplaying the incident.

By all accounts a scrupulous man, Rajoy has said he was hurt by accusations that he had lied.

"At times of crisis he demonstrates enormous tranquility. He doesn't lose patience. He's a very temperate person," said Jose Maria Lassalle, a PP moderate and possible culture minister who has known Rajoy for eight years.

He survived the inevitable internal party struggle that followed, hanging on to his leadership of the PP by convincing the pragmatists to help him quietly to get rid of the old Aznar conservatives and move the party toward the centre.

"When he wins he doesn't think he's the mambo king and break out into dance steps. But he doesn't drown himself in misery when he loses," said an advisor who has known Rajoy for 20 years.

Proudly moderate
 
In the past PP leaders were either authoritarian, like Manuel Fraga, a minister during the Francisco Franco dictatorship, or ideologically driven, like the conservative Aznar.

Rajoy breaks with that tradition. Even his critics within the party give him credit for promoting moderates such as Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, a shift they say has made the party attractive to a wider range of voters. Most Spaniards define themselves as left of centre.

"The hard-line right is done with. Franco doesn't exist. We are not cavemen," he said heatedly in a conversation with foreign journalists earlier this year.

Rajoy dons jeans and a polo shirt to go for a daily walk in a park near his home in Aravaca, a wealthy neighbourhood of Madrid. Sometimes security guards are trailing him at a distance, but sometimes not. He stops and chats with neighbours.

After his party won the biggest majority in Spain's lower house in 30 years, Rajoy made a sober victory speech pledging to get right to work.

"There won't be any miracles... I ask you to keep helping me and to keep supporting me. Difficult times lie ahead but we will have the will, the courage and the determination," he told his cheering supporters outside PP headquarters in Madrid on Sunday night.

Polls

His only visible sign of excitement was a little pogo jump, straight up and down.

For months and months there was a paradox in opinion polls. Rajoy received very low approval ratings from Spaniards who said he did not understand their problems.

But at the same time polls anticipated the People's Party election victory as disillusionment with the Socialists was growing, due to the country's high unemployment.

Read more on:    mariano rajoy  |  spain
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