Poker-faced Rajoy has been dealt a difficult hand


He was installed as Spanish prime minister yesterday, but who, asks P ADDY WOODWORTH, is Mariano Rajoy, and what does he stand for?

MARIANO RAJOY is the epitome of an enigma wrapped inside a puzzle.

He has led Spain’s deeply conservative Partido Popular (PP) in opposition for the last eight years. Now he has brought the party back to power with the biggest absolute majority enjoyed by any Spanish leader since Felipe González’s historic landslide for the Socialist Party (PSOE) in 1982.

Installed yesterday as Spain’s new prime minister, no one, not even his own senior colleagues, is sure where exactly he really stands on almost anything.

Some think – and others fear – that he will lead from the hard, ideologically driven right, like his predecessor and mentor José María Aznar.

Others think he will seek to heal Spain’s deep economic wounds, and long-running battles about national identity, as a consensual centrist. If you believe that regional stereotypes reflect reality, Rajoy’s unreadable poker face is no surprise.

He is from Galicia, that green and damp northwestern corner of Iberia, with a heritage that many consider Celtic, and home to the great cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, culmination of northern Spain’s eponymous Camino.

Galicia also has a language of its own and, in the view of a substantial minority of Gallegos – though definitely not in Rajoy’s – the right to national self-determination.

Gallegos are famous for retranca, a dry and obscurely ironical sense of humour that reveals little about the speaker’s real convictions.

It is said that, if you meet a Gallego on the stairs, you can never be sure if they are going up or down.

It is also said that this characteristic served another Gallego, the former dictator Gen Francisco Franco, very well indeed in dividing and ruling the fractious Spanish right for 40 years until his death in 1975.

One of Rajoy’s first political mentors, yet another Gallego, was the Francoist minister Manuel Fraga, who successfully recycled himself as a democrat, founding the PP, of which he remains president.

Rajoy grew up in comfortable circumstances in the provincial Galician city of Pontevedra, though his father’s position as a senior judge meant he also spent some of his childhood in Castillian cities. His father’s severity and conservatism seem to have imprinted on him deeply.

As a university student, he never became involved in the ferment of anti-Franco agitation that dominated Spanish colleges in the 1970s.

Instead, his studious habits earned him a top law degree at the age of 23, and his subsequent career in property registration was successful, if hardly glamorous.

We know he developed continuing passions for cycling and cigars – an intriguing contradiction. And that he considers himself a totally “normal person”. We know little else about his character for sure.

He became involved in politics as the PP gradually emerged in the 1980s as the home of the entire Spanish right, from Francoist nostalgists to Christian Democrats.

Curiously, Fraga is said to have advised him to do two things to advance his career: learn the Galician language – Galicia has a powerful autonomous government – and get married. It surely says something of his approach to Spain’s always contentious series of national questions that he did the second, but not the first.

He became a senior party fixer under the leadership of Aznar, figuring hardly at all in ideological disputes but gaining a reputation for resolving internal conflicts, calming tempers and soothing egos. In a cutting judgment on his style, one journalist wrote: “The bad thing is that wherever he goes, he does not clean up. The good thing is that he does not make things dirtier.”

He performed competently in several senior ministries under Aznar’s two administrations between 1996 and 2004, but it was still a surprise when Aznar named him as his successor. However, he looked set to easily win his first general elections against the PSOE neophyte José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

The March 11th, 2004, Madrid train bombings changed everything in those elections. Aznar, who was still prime minister, insisted on blaming the Basque terrorist group Eta for the attacks, when it was plainly obvious that Islamists were responsible.

Rajoy went into opposition as the leader of a party tainted with lying about a terrorist atrocity. Today it is Zapatero who looks tainted, having repeatedly failed to tell the Spanish people about the grim depth of the economic crisis.

In his inaugural speech yesterday, Rajoy promised to “create employment” and “restore Spain’s standing in the world”. These are admirable objectives. But it remains a mystery as to how precisely how he will set about achieving them.