Spain's No-Frills, Austere PM Seeks Re-Election


Straight-laced and sedate, Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has turned his perceived dullness into a political strength, positioning himself as a safe pair of hands who saved the country from economic collapse.

"Do I look as boring as some say?" the 60-year-old asked recently while playing table football on television -- in an unusual appearance for a man who normally shuns the media -- just ahead of Sunday's general elections.

Satirists like to mock his infamous truisms -- "really, a glass is a glass and a plate is a plate" -- his iffy English or his tendency to let problems drag out, such as when he famously asserted that "at times, the best decision is not to take any."

Unflinching, the grey-bearded, bespectacled leader has shrugged off waves of animosity over drastic austerity measures he implemented in 2012 as the country was neck-deep in a financial crisis.

"One of the keys of his success is his ability to build up the image of a man without charisma nor initiative and all his foes have fallen in the same trap -- that of under-estimating him," says political scientist Anton Losada, who wrote a book about Rajoy.

Born in 1955 in Santiago de Compostela in the conservative, northwestern Galicia region, Rajoy is the eldest son of a provincial court president.

Educated in a Jesuit school and trained as a lawyer, Rajoy turned to politics at a young age, joining the Popular Alliance, the party founded by ministers of former dictator Francisco Franco which later became the Popular Party (PP).

"Rajoy is first and foremost a party man," writes Losada.

He learnt early on that "if you take care of the party, the party will take care of you."

Rajoy, who in a rare, recent television chat about his private life said he had never had many girlfriends, eventually married in his early forties and has two sons.

He has admitted a fondness for exercise -- which he does every morning -- and the Real Madrid football club, but politics has been his life.

After working as a land registrar in his early 20s, Rajoy was elected a regional official at age 26.

He later became the right-hand man of Jose Maria Aznar, who was Spanish leader from 1996 to 2004, serving in several ministerial posts.

As spokesman for the government in the later years of Aznar's leadership, he shielded him from criticism over his handling of the 2002 Prestige tanker spill or Spain's participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Aznar appointed him as his successor, but Rajoy went on to lose two general elections to the Socialists.

Voters finally handed him the premiership in 2011 as the country suffered the ravages of a crisis sparked by the collapse of Spain's construction boom in 2008.

Once in office, under pressure from European authorities to lower Spain's deficit, he launched budget cuts, tax hikes and other measures aimed at saving 150 billion euros ($160 billion).

Political scientist Fernando Vallespin said Rajoy managed to avoid a Greece-like rescue of Spain, even if the country's struggling banks were bailed out by the European Union to the tune of 41 billion euros.

"But he also came across as a technocrat far removed from the social reality of the country, concerned first and foremost about applying Brussels' austerity policies," he added.

An adept of economic liberalism, Rajoy is also a staunch conservative who only dropped plans to restrict women's access to abortion under pressure from protesters.

As elections near, polls suggest he will win but unlike in 2011, his PP is unlikely to get an absolute majority -- faced with stiff competition from younger candidates, some of them new to what many consider a staid political scene.

So he has once again embraced the role of the "predictable man", the only one he says can sustain Spain's economic recovery.

"Either the PP rules or it's bankruptcy," said his deputy Soraya Saenz de Santamaria.

But there is one, big black cloud to his sedate rule -- corruption scandal after corruption scandal that have splashed high-ranking members of his PP.

And that issue made him lose his legendary calm during a debate with main opposition rival Pedro Sanchez, who questioned his integrity.

"You miserable wretch," Rajoy countered. "I am an honest politician."

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