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Remember Mariano Rajoy? Since Spain’s inconclusive general election in December, the prime minister has lived the life of a political recluse. His appearances in the media have been scarce, as have his interventions in parliament.

He has dutifully carried on his role as acting prime minister, attending summits and presiding over the weekly cabinet meeting. But he has been almost entirely absent from the real political drama in Spain: the high-stakes cross-party negotiations to form the next government.

Mr Rajoy’s reluctance to take the initiative became clear just weeks after the election, when he formally declined the king’s mandate to form a new government. Despite leading the largest bloc in parliament, Mr Rajoy argued he had little chance of winning over a majority of deputies. Instead, it was left to his Socialist rival — with just a quarter of the seats in the legislature — to lead the coalition dance.

The prime minister’s stance has earned him the opprobrium of his political opponents and much of the Spanish media. Not for the first time, the veteran conservative has been likened to a political zombie — staggering around close to the action, but dead all the same.

And yet, for all the scorn and ridicule, it now looks as if Mr Rajoy has again been written off too early. In a political career spanning three decades, he has survived two general election defeats, years of desolate poll ratings, the worst economic crisis in recent memory and a seemingly never-ending string of party corruption scandals. But he is still here — running his early-morning rounds inside the Moncloa government compound, while his rivals are merely banging at the gates.

More importantly, two crucial factors are finally swinging his way. The first is the apparent inability of Spain’s other main parties to come to a government accord. Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Socialists, has signed up the centrist Ciudadanos party as an ally, but still needs to convince the anti-austerity Podemos party to back his bid for power. Progress towards such a three-way alliance has been halting at best — undermined at every turn by the vast ideological and political gulf between Podemos and Ciudadanos. If parliament fails to elect a new prime minister by May 2, the king will dissolve the chamber and call a new election. Time for a deal to unseat the incumbent is running out fast.

The second spot of good news for Mr Rajoy can be found in the polls. All recent surveys suggest his Popular party will hold on to, or even extend, its lead over the other parties. With turnout predicted to fall from December, the PP seems destined to lift its tally of seats in parliament beyond the current 123. What is more, with Ciudadanos also expected to improve its result, a centre-right majority government may be within reach. Even if it is not, the pressure on the Socialists to join forces with the PP in a German-style “grand coalition” would be huge.

Political sentiment in Spain has, of course, been intensely volatile of late. Support may well shift again — as may the calculations of the other Spanish parties if a PP victory moves closer into view. And then there is the issue of Mr Rajoy’s own standing, both within his party and within a future coalition government.

PP insiders know only too well that appointing a new leader would increase the party’s chances at the ballot box — and remove a crucial obstacle to any deal with Ciudadanos or the Socialists. Both have attacked Mr Rajoy as a symbol of the country’s tarnished old politics, but could well find it hard to reject a younger PP leader as prime minister. Neither does Mr Rajoy enjoy much popularity among Spain’s business leaders, many of whom insist that any solution to Spain’s political deadlock must be based on two principals: keeping Podemos out of government, and sacrificing Mr Rajoy.

His odds of returning to power, in other words, are far from good. But they have improved notably in recent weeks — and are certainly no worse than those of his main rivals. Mr Rajoy, perhaps alone among all the party leaders in Spain, can look ahead to a new election with a genuine sense of calm.

tobias.buck@ft.com

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