Spain’s Aznar criticises his successor and hints at possible political comeback

Former prime minister’s comments seen as reproach to incumbent Mariano Rajoy

Former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar who has burst into the political spotlight in recent days. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP Photo

Former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar who has burst into the political spotlight in recent days. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP Photo

Mon, May 27, 2013, 02:00

He prides himself on his prowess as a long distance runner, but even some of José María Aznar’s long-time allies suspect he has overstretched himself with his most recent gambit.

The former Spanish prime minister stepped down from frontline politics nearly a decade ago, but he has burst back into the spotlight in recent days, criticising his successor and even hinting at a political comeback.

“[The government] should offer hope, rather than weak resignation,” Aznar told Antena 3 television in an interview on Tuesday night that was seen as a clear reproach of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who succeeded him as leader of the conservative Partido Popular (PP).

Aznar added that he “would like to see a very clear political project and a definite political line”. A sweeping new tax law, as well as deeper reforms to other areas, were desperately needed, he said, because Spain’s middle classes were being asphyxiated by the economic climate.

Aznar is a revered figure in conservative circles. He took power in 1996, overseeing the beginning of Spain’s property-driven economic boom. Instead of running for a third term he stepped down in 2004, handpicking Rajoy as his successor as party leader.


‘Party of loyalties’
The PP unexpectedly lost the ensuing general election and Aznar’s protege remained leader of the opposition until winning the 2011 ballot.

But despite the esteem in which the former prime minister is held by his own PP, almost all the party’s senior figures have closed ranks behind Rajoy following the now notorious television interview.

“The PP is a party of loyalties,” said Alberto Núñez Feijóo, premier of Galicia and one of the party’s leading figures. “This party was loyal to prime minister Aznar and that means, in consequence, that its loyalty to prime minister Rajoy is unshakeable.”

Finance minister Cristóbal Montoro, formerly a member of the Aznar government, said: “I would like to lower taxes, but there’s no room to do so.”

For the most part, Aznar has kept well away from politics in recent years, heading the FAES, a right-wing think tank, and sitting on the board of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Since leaving office, he has also accomplished two of his most cherished aims: learning to speak fluent English from scratch and honing his 60-year-old physique with a punishing regime of jogging and sit-ups.

But he has occasionally threatened to overshadow the uncharismatic Rajoy, such as at their party’s 2008 national convention, where he hogged the limelight and appeared to snub his former minister.

“Aznar’s great virtue was to modernise the PP and make it electable,” says political analyst Fernando Vallespín of Madrid’s Autónoma University.

However, in his second term as prime minister, Aznar started to shun political consensus. He moved away from Spain’s traditional EU allies towards the UK and the United States, whose Iraqi invasion he supported. Vallespín describes him now as an ideologically aggressive “Spanish neo-con”.

Besides taking swipes at Rajoy during the controversial TV interview, Aznar also stunned viewers by hinting at a return from the political wilderness. When asked about such a possibility, he said: “I would fulfil my responsibility with my conscience, with my party and my country. I have never shirked my responsibilities.”

But many observers see careful strategy in the former Spanish leader’s comments, rather than a genuine yearning to return to politics.

In recent weeks he has been linked to two corruption scandals affecting the PP.

El País newspaper has revealed, among other things, that Francisco Correa, the mastermind behind the Gürtel cash-for-contracts network, helped pay for the lavish wedding of Aznar’s daughter in 2002. Aznar insists there was no wrongdoing.


Useful distraction
Threatening a political comeback and undermining the prime minister are ways of distracting attention from the revelations and punishing his party for not defending him from them more robustly, Vallespín believes.

Broadcaster and columnist Josep Ramoneda is another who subscribes to this theory.

Aznar’s TV appearance, he has noted, “has caused an earthquake on the political right”. But he adds: “This might well not be the beginning of anything, but rather the swansong of a vain character who seems to believe that this country owes him something, when it was during his government that the whole nihilistic delirium that has led us to disaster began.”