Nobody Likes Mariano Rajoy
So why is Spain about to re-elect him?
Even his most fierce opponents would concede Mariano Rajoy is a survivor. After becoming leader of the conservative People’s Party (PP) in 2004, Rajoy lost his first two general elections to their historic rivals the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE by its Spanish acronym), surviving a helicopter crash in the process. As prime minister since 2011, he has presided over the highest unemployment rate since democracy returned in the 1970s (26.9 percent), a housing crisis in which over 400,000 families have been evicted, swinging cuts to public services, two general strikes, the increasing likelihood that Catalonia might secede from Spain, and a major financial corruption scandal at the heart of the PP in which he was personally implicated.
Going into Sunday’s general election, the sitting prime minister’s astonishing perseverance again seems to be serving him well. In early December, the country’s national statistics institute, the CIS, conducted a survey of the popularity of party leaders, asking for a rating out of ten. Of the six largest national parties contesting the election, Rajoy came in last, with an average rating of 3.31. Yet, against all odds, Rajoy’s party is still leading in all the polls. Despite a Spanish electorate that feels little evident passion for his leadership (and a portion of which doesn’t even conceal its outright disdain for him), there’s every chance Rajoy will still be prime minister next week.
Born in 1955 in Galicia in Spain’s northwest, Rajoy studied law before entering politics in 1981 as a member of the People’s Alliance, a party that sought some (albeit democratic) continuity to Francisco Franco’s regime, and would eventually merge to form the PP. As he worked his way up the party ranks, Rajoy earned a reputation among friends and foes alike for patience and quiet ruthlessness. He outlasted party rivals with more charisma mostly by daring them to make mistakes; his career trajectory is that of a stoical journeyman politician whose grayness is the very reason for his success.
But Rajoy’s personal stamina doesn’t fully explain his party’s continued success amid his scandal-ridden, economically challenged stint as prime minister. To an extent, the fact that the PP is still polling in first place is due to the party’s unwavering bloc of support — throughout the 1990s and 2000s it always received between 34-45 percent of the total vote, alternating government with the other major establishment party the center-left PSOE. Rajoy first became prime minister in November 2011, after a nationwide, largely left-wing protest movement, known as the indignados or 15-M, emerged in opposition to the PSOE’s stewardship of the financial crisis. A month later I asked some of those protesters, who had rallied by the millions against the PSOE’s cuts to public services, how it was possible that the country had just elected a right-wing government that was promising to make much deeper cuts than the PSOE, in the name of balancing the books. “Because there are 10 million people in Spain who will vote for the Partido Popular whatever happens, in any circumstances.” I was told by Juanjo, an unemployed economist, who used the Spanish name for the People’s Party. “If the left stay home, the PP win.”
But even though a substantial part of the PP’s constituency remains durable — the party has been polling around 25-28 percent for most of this year — many of these old certainties are crumbling, and the party is unlikely to get 10 million votes on Sunday. For the first time since the return of democracy to Spain, the general election is not a two-horse race; two new parties with no seats in parliament and a completely different approach have shaken up the country’s historic bipartisanship. Citizens (Ciudadanos) was founded in 2006 as a regional party in Catalonia that distinguished itself by its firm opposition to Catalan independence; it launched on a national scale in 2013 , but only managed to gain momentum in the last few months. It now comes in second, ahead of the PSOE, in some opinion polls. Their new national outlook has been styled as a rejuvenated liberal centrism, with an emphasis on deregulation and pro-business reforms, and aided greatly by the popularity of their TV-friendly young leader Albert Rivera (who received the highest leader rating in the aforementioned CIS poll). Up until he joined the party Rivera had been a member of the PP for several years, and there is a sense that Citizens is a more dynamic, populist version of Rajoy’s party — offering voters a “vote for change,” but perhaps not too much change.
If the PP has been losing voters to Citizens, the other erstwhile establishment party, PSOE, has almost certainly lost substantial support to both Citizens and the second new kid on the block, Podemos (We Can). It is they, led by pony-tailed former university lecturer Pablo Iglesias, who have channeled the anti-austerity energy of the indignados movement; formed as recently as January 2014, Podemos shocked Europe when they won 1.2 million votes and five seats at that year’s European elections, with a tiny crowd-funded budget, only four months into their existence. Since then the left-wing party has had astonishing ups and downs, even leading the opinion polls this time last year, and despite a dip in support during 2015, it has had a good election campaign, making the election a desperately tight four-way race.
It increasingly seems clear that no one party will win a clear majority on Sunday, raising the prospect of either a PP minority government (which could easily fall, requiring new elections), a PP-Citizens coalition (which still might not be enough seats for a majority), a PP-PSOE “national government” establishment coalition (which seems almost unthinkable), or a PSOE-Citizens-Podemos coalition of the center-left (which would be, it seems fair to assume, a very messy affair).
But even amid this uncertainty, the election campaign has provided new insights into how Spanish politics is changing. At 60, Mariano Rajoy is the only party leader going into this election who is old enough to remember the Franco dictatorship — PSOE’s Pedro Sánchez is only 43, Iglesias 37, and Rivera 36. This age gap is reflected in Rajoy’s rather terse, old-fashioned persona and rhetorical style, especially in contrast to his energetic, tech-savvy rivals. It reaches down to their support base, too. According to another recent CIS poll, PP and PSOE maintain their historic domination among those aged 65-plus, while with young adults, Podemos and Citizens have taken the lead.
But there is a deeper distinction between the two established parties and la nueva política, “the new politics,” of the insurgents than the generational stylings of their leaders. Citizens and Podemos have found success railing against the corruption of the Spanish establishment, in which both the PP and PSOE have been implicated, in one way or another. It certainly didn’t help Mariano Rajoy’s case that Spaniards would need to tighten their belts during “la crisis,” when it emerged in 2013 that the PP’s treasurer Luis Bárcenas had been using an illegal slush fund donated by businessmen to funnel tens of thousands of euros to leading party figures, including Rajoy. Bárcenas was eventually imprisoned, but Rajoy never entirely abdicated his support: One of the text messages sent by the prime minister to Bárcenas during the crisis was eventually disclosed, reading “be strong, Luis.”
That Rajoy is still leading the party at all speaks to a high level of impunity at the top of the Spanish power structure: Beyond politics, a stream of corruption cases have affected the royal family and the upper echelons of business in recent years, and many of the accused have been luckier than Bárcenas. But the PP’s position at the front of this four-way race also reflects that, in spite of the depths of Spain’s economic crisis, Rajoy can argue that his structural reforms, cuts, and privatizations are beginning to achieve the desired effect: After four desperately grim years, economic growth has returned, and unemployment has just about dipped to a lower rate than when he was elected in 2011. His critics point to the fact that the much-vaunted recovery is a mirage — many of the new jobs created are in precarious, part-time employment, there has been a significant brain drain of Spain’s youngest and brightest to northern Europe, and even the headline rate of unemployment is still 21.6 percent. But some Spaniards are evidently buying Rajoy’s suggestion that the economy has turned the corner — 27 percent say they expect the economy to be in better shape in a year, 42 percent say it will remain the same, and 14 percent say it will deteriorate.
The emerging cultural divide in Spanish politics was perfectly represented in the final televised election debate. To much derision, Rajoy refused all debate invitations except a head-to-head debate with PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez, on Monday night. Sitting in a drab, entirely featureless TV studio, talking over each other and slinging barbed insults for two hours, while a visibly bored moderator looked on, it was a perfect visual metaphor for what Podemos has taken to denouncing as “the regime of ‘78,” a reference to the year the post-Franco constitution was drawn up. After the debate finished, Pablo Iglesias took to Twitter (where he has more followers than Rajoy and Sanchez combined): “we have witnessed the epilogue to an era,” he wrote. Whatever happens on Sunday, and regardless if Rajoy manages to survive yet again, he is right about that.
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