Spain's PM faces new test of political survival

60-year-old seen as obstacle to change by younger opponents wanting overhaul of institutions

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (right) meeting Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez at the Palace of La Moncloa in Madrid last Wednesday to discuss the situation after the Dec 20 election. Mr Rajoy hopes to form a coalition government after his Popular Party
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (right) meeting Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez at the Palace of La Moncloa in Madrid last Wednesday to discuss the situation after the Dec 20 election. Mr Rajoy hopes to form a coalition government after his Popular Party lost its parliamentary majority.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

MADRID • In their first debate last month before Spain's national election, the leaders of the country's four main political parties each took their places on stage, with one exception. The incumbent, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, refused to participate in the forum that included the country's two emerging parties - Podemos and Citizens - dismissing them as irrelevant.

In his place was an empty lectern.

In hindsight, that refusal to recognise the shift in the country's political landscape proved to be short-sighted. Mr Rajoy is now looking to form the government again after the inconclusive general election on Dec 20 in which his Popular Party saw its parliamentary majority evaporate, though it still emerged as the single biggest party with 28.7 per cent of the vote.

He is now making overtures to the Socialists - which took 22 per cent of the vote - as well as the newcomer parties, with a third of the vote, in the hopes of cobbling together a coalition government.

The Socialists have already rejected Mr Rajoy's proposal to form a grand coalition while he is prime minister, though they have not completely shut the door on the Popular Party. Today, Mr Rajoy meets the leader of the Citizens or Ciudadanos party, Mr Albert Rivera, and the leader of the Podemos or We Can party, Mr Pablo Iglesias, in the hope of a breakthrough.

But Mr Rajoy's opponents, especially the new, upstart parties, want more than a change of leadership. They want to move Mr Rajoy out of the way so they can overhaul what they say are inefficient institutions - including the Senate, the upper chamber of Parliament - and to put an end to endemic corruption that has tainted Spain's political establishment.

Indeed, the battle is generational, with Mr Rajoy, 60, seen as a symbol of an old guard that is an obstacle to change by the younger generation of politicians. Among his opponents, Mr Pedro Sanchez, the Socialist leader, is 43; Podemos leader Iglesias is 37; and Citizens leader Rivera is 36.

That wide gap in age has led Mr Rajoy to contrast his leadership experience and 30 years in politics with the shallowness of the new parties, describing them as ephemeral, one-man organisations that are only "the product of a television show or a marketing campaign".

During a political rally in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands early this month, he told supporters that "every quarter of an hour (there) appears a different one".

As for his refusal to debate against the leaders of the new parties last month, Mr Rajoy argued that, as the head of government, he had a busier agenda than they do.

But his opponents and some political observers say he has been burying his head in the sand at a moment when the pressure for change has spread across the full spectrum of Spanish politics and society.

Born in 1955, Mr Rajoy grew up in the Galicia region of northern Spain. A father of two children, he has a law degree from the University of Santiago de Compostela. After working briefly as a land registrar, the cycling enthusiast embarked on a career in politics and was elected as a regional deputy for what would become the Popular Party when he was just 26 years old. Through most of the 1980s, the Real Madrid football club fan served in local and regional governments.

From 1996, he served in the government of prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, holding successively the posts of minister for public administration, minister for education and culture, and minister for the interior. In 2003, he was handpicked by Mr Aznar as the Popular Party's new leader.

Although he failed to lead the party to victory in general elections in 2004 and 2008, the cigar-smoking Mr Rajoy is a survivor. He came back a third time in the 2011 general election, and this time, with Europe's sovereign debt crisis continuing to escalate, the Popular Party ousted the ruling Socialists, seen by the people to have pushed the country into economic crisis.

It was a landslide victory, with the Popular Party winning the biggest parliamentary majority in three decades.

Although Mr Rajoy managed to stabilise the economy in 2013, his tenure has seen unemployment rising to as high as 26.9 per cent, a housing crisis with 400,000 families evicted from their homes, and cuts to public services. All these have meant that he is deeply unpopular with voters.

Still, the man who, among other things, survived a 2005 helicopter crash - walking away with just a broken finger - is banking on his knack for survival to surprise everyone with another term in office.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'Spain's PM faces new test of political survival'. Subscribe