“I will have no enemies other than unemployment, deficit, excessive debt, economic stagnation, and all the things that keep our country in these critical circumstances.” Mariano Rajoy spoke calmly to an army of journalists in Madrid, on the night when he became Spain’s new president. Yet you’d be forgiven for not knowing this bearded man: he is painfully uncharismatic, the kind of person who blends into the background at social gatherings and ends up being ignored by everyone around him. He is also a dull public speaker, his rather strange lisp would be a matter of ridicule if only Spanish people would care about him enough to include him in their jokes. To make matters worse, Rajoy does not seem to have an ideology, or even an opinion about anything other than football or cycling – his two passions. Spanish voters do not know what this man from Galicia plans to do about, for example, gay marriage, immigration, Spain’s policy towards the Arab states, or education.
Even his surname is a liability: foreign journalists struggle to pronounce it properly – “rah-hoy” – and sometimes avoid it altogether. And, until very recently, Rajoy was also perceived as an unlucky man, a loser: he was 3 days away from winning the general election in 2004, when a terrorist attack in Madrid killed 193 people and allowed his rival Zapatero to claim victory. He lost yet another general election in 2008, against the same opponent. It says a lot that a man like him has managed to win the election, together with an absolute majority in the Spanish congress that will allow him to do pretty much as he wishes during the coming 4 years. There is a feeling of national emergency in Spain, one which has led many voters to say something along the lines of “Rajoy might be dull, and we may have no idea about his plans, but he could hardly do it worse than Zapatero!” A Spanish journalist recently called him a president “by default”.
Dealing with the Economic Crisis
Mariano Rajoy is well aware of the fact that the economic crisis is the main reason why he is in power. The previous socialist government led by Zapatero did a pretty solid job when the times were good, expanding the welfare state and making Spain one of the world’s leading countries in terms of gender equality and LGBT rights. However, when the rainy days came, the system began to crumble and Zapatero acted like a bird trapped in a house, desperately trying to find a way out, repeatedly banging his head against doors and windows in the process.
No matter who we decide to blame, the fact is that the Spanish economy is in deep trouble. The unemployment rate for people under the age of 30 is rapidly approaching 50%. The total number of unemployed people in Spain will soon reach 5 million – and these figures are likely to get even worse at least until May, when the country’s hotels start receiving wealthy European tourists again. But unemployment is only part of the problem: the financial situation is arguably even more worrying, Spain having serious trouble selling its debt, and many people remaining unsure of how long it will take for the country to ask international institutions for help.
As you would expect, Rajoy has not made his economic plans clear. In fact, he has not made a single media appearance since the 21st of November, which means that one can only guess what his economic policy will be like by listening to other leaders of the Conservative Party. This is the case of José Manuel Soria, a Conservative politician from the Canary Islands, who has recently made it clear that his party will ignore “the noise that some will make” in response to Rajoy’s future economic reforms. María Dolores de Cospedal, another one of Rajoy’s most trusted supporters, also predicted that many people “will begin to protest when the government tells them what it has to do to take this country forward”. Many have already predicted that Spain’s ‘Indignados’ movement, which took to the streets in May to protest against the political system, may be revived by the Conservative Party’s unpopular reforms.
As if that wasn’t worrying enough, one of Rajoy’s first official meetings after the election was with none other than Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, responsible for some of the most brutal reforms in Britain since you-know-who. After the meeting, Clegg reaffirmed his conviction that these reforms were absolutely essential if Europe was ever going to be wealthy again. Even if Rajoy has made no public announcements since mid-November, it seems that there is only one real message to draw from all of this: brace for impact.
It may be useful to remember the case of Castile – la Mancha. This rather poor region just south of Madrid had been controlled by the Socialist Party for almost 30 years until, 7 months ago, the Conservative Party won the local election. As soon as the new leader came to power, she made an official announcement: the economic situation of the region “is much worse than what we had been told”. The Socialist Party lied and did not tell us “how bad the situation really was”. We (the Conservative Party) have inherited “an unsustainable situation”. As if reading from the pages of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, María Dolores de Cospedal went on to announce that she would have to carry out a set of economic reforms that would be much more radical than they had expected. This did not only happen in Castile – la Mancha, but also, to a lesser extent, in several other regions in which the Conservative Party came to power. Understandably, many analysts fear that a similar thing will happen as soon as Mariano Rajoy is sworn in as the new Spanish president. We will find out soon enough.
The Basque Conflict
Although the economic crisis will be the main matter of debate during the next years, it would be foolish to forget about the situation in the Basque Country. It seems that, for the first time in decades, things are really starting to change. Just one month before the election, ETA (the local terrorist organisation) declared a “definitive cessation of its armed activity”. Coming from an organisation that has killed over 800 people in the name of the Basque Country, and which has broken two ceasefires in the past, this would normally mean very little. But there is a change in the language used – this is not just another “ceasefire”, it is “definitive”. And the situation has also changed: those who previously supported ETA, or simply refused to acknowledge its violence have now realised that this organisation is the main obstacle keeping the Basque Country away from real political independence.
This changing situation is evidenced by the results of the general election in the Basque Country. Amaiur (a radical left-wing party which openly endorses independence from Spain but now rejects political violence) became the largest political force in the region. The more traditional Basque Nationalist Party still managed to win over 25% of the votes, meaning that nationalist parties received the support of well over half of the voters in the area. In a region where the Conservatives have always been a fringe party, and at a time when the Socialists have less popular support than ever, it seems logical to think that nationalist parties will keep on growing. If these groups play their cards well, they may achieve enough votes in the next Basque election in 2013 to make the situation completely unsustainable for the central government in Madrid.
But beyond the game of parties and elections, something else is at stake. Even though ETA seems to be a thing of the past, there is still a widespread feeling that the Basque Problem needs some sort of closure. However, while Spain’s two largest parties did accept the organisation’s ceasefire as good news, that is as far as they went. Mariano Rajoy is now the man responsible for opening a meaningful preace process that will allow all sides to be included in the future of the process. But so far, the Conservative Party is having none of it.
The party’s leaders have repeatedly claimed that there is nothing to talk about – that ETA has been defeated by Spain, that all its jailed members will remain in prison, and that the state has nothing to apologise for, despite some cases of torture committed against suspected ETA members, and the existence of a state-sponsored terrorist group during the 1980s which was never fully investigated. In fact, the Conservative Party has even gone as far as saying that it will ignore the Basque pro-independence movement Amaiur, which it considers to be part of ETA. This, despite the fact that Amaiur is the largest party in the Basque Country, and its alleged connections with ETA have been denied time and again. Nobody claims that carrying out a successful peace process is an easy job, but having the two sides speaking to each other might, just might, be a start.
– Mariano Rajoy is the leader of the Partido Popular (People’s Party). However, for the sake of clarity, the title ‘Conservative Party’ is used in this article.
– Most political scientists argue that Spain has a Prime Minister, not a President. However, the official title of President (“Presidente del Gobierno”) is used in the article