For much of this year, Mariano Rajoy has been the Invisible Man of Spanish politics, watching and waiting while his rivals worked to oust him from power.
He looked on while other party leaders struggled — and ultimately failed — to form a new government in the wake of last year’s inconclusive general election. Now, with a repeat ballot looming in June, he is ready to break cover.
In an interview with the FT at his residence outside Madrid, Spain’s acting prime minister lays out his plans for another four-year term, promising 2m new jobs as well as tax cuts and an overhaul of the public sector.
He brushes aside the challenge from Spain’s political newcomers, including the anti-establishment Podemos party. Voters, he argues, will choose his “experience” and “moderation” over political rupture. He has no intention of making way for a younger leader.
“My job,” he says, “is only half done.”
When Mr Rajoy took office in late 2011, he inherited a country deep in recession, with a public deficit of 9.3 per cent and a simmering banking crisis that would explode only six months later. Today, structural problems remain — not least an unemployment rate of 21 per cent — but Mr Rajoy trumpets his government’s economic achievements: Jobless numbers are falling, and the economy continues to grow at a brisk pace — despite the political uncertainty.
“Spain has overcome the threat of bankruptcy. It is growing and creating jobs. Now we have to consolidate the recovery. I feel good. I feel motivated. And I have experience . . . I think Spain needs experience at this moment,” he says.
The latest polls predict that Mr Rajoy and his centre-right Popular Party will emerge as the biggest bloc in parliament once again, and could even win more seats than in December. But an absolute majority seems out of reach. How then to break the impasse?
Mr Rajoy would dearly like a German-style grand coalition with the centre-left Socialists, even though the Socialists have spurned him. “A grand coalition would be the best thing for Spain,” he says. “We would be many. We would have a majority. We could push through reforms. And we could work together at the European level.”
He dismisses “the new parties that are springing up everywhere” — from Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement in Italy to Ukip in Britain. He reserves special scorn for Podemos, a supposed practitioner of new politics that Mr Rajoy rejects as “a 19th century party”.
Another Spanish upstart, the centrist and pro-business Ciudadanos party, is widely regarded as a natural coalition partner for the PP. The hitch is that Ciudadanos says it will not back a PP-led government while Mr Rajoy is in charge. Would he, for the sake of political stability, step aside? His answer is unequivocal. “What is in the national interest is to respect the wish of the people. It is rather curious that a party with 40 seats in parliament [Ciudadanos] tells a party with 123 seats [the PP] to get rid of its leader.” Besides, adds Mr Rajoy, “I won the election”.
Whatever the shape of the next government, his plans for a second term come with a surprisingly American twang — and a story about a recent encounter with a successful Spanish entrepreneur.
“He started his speech by saying: ‘Ladies and gentleman, I have been bankrupt three times.’ I thought that was a stupendous message. Don’t give up and don’t wait for the state or the government to solve everything for you,” he enthuses.
Mr Rajoy insists it is “not the state that creates jobs and wealth”, and he wants to inject “more freedom into the economy”. Low-key and lacking in charisma, such messages make him nevertheless sound a little like former US president Ronald Reagan. “I don’t have much in common with Ronald Reagan,” the prime minister replies, deadpan. “But he was not exactly a bad president.”
Not everyone in Spain agrees with Mr Rajoy’s assessment of the economy — let alone his prescriptions to restore it. Yet his greatest political weakness is a popular revulsion at corruption that has nourished parties like Ciudadanos and Podemos. Since early 2013, when the PP was rocked by revelations of a slush fund, corruption scandals have prompted a wave of resignations and arrests, as well as the public disgrace of high-profile party figures. As PP leader during the period, Mr Rajoy has drawn criticism from all sides.
Spain’s prime minister, however, does not do repentance. “My party is not a corrupt party. There were some people [inside the party] who did what they shouldn’t have done. But they have all been forced out already.”
Mr Rajoy faces another vexing political challenge in Catalonia. The prosperous northeastern region has experienced a sharp rise in separatist sentiment in recent years, and is governed by a cabinet openly committed to independence. That demand has so far met implacable opposition from Madrid, and will continue to do so. “We can talk about everything [with the Catalan leadership] — except the national unity of Spain,” says Mr Rajoy.
On Catalonia, as on other matters, Mr Rajoy has been accused of inaction. Some refer to him as “el hombre que siempre espera” — the man who always waits for something to turn up, like a Galician version of Charles Dickens’ Mr Micawber.
But his wait-and-see tactics have often paid off.
“If you govern you have to be clear about two things: the first is your priorities, to distinguish between what is important and what is not. The other is to manage time,” he remarks.
In his own case, “managing time” clearly means knowing when to act and when not to act, when to leave the field to his rivals, when to step up — and, finally, when to step aside. The moment of his departure, he insists, has not yet arrived.
In fact, Mr Rajoy says he has started rejuvenating his party, appointing a string of younger leaders to important posts. For the moment, though, there is no one to take his place. Written off a thousand times, he seems pleased to prove the obituary writers wrong. “I don’t have a natural successor,” he says with a broad smile. “And I will tell you something else: sometimes it is no bad thing not to have a natural successor.”
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