If polls prove correct, the leader of the conservative People’s party, Mariano Rajoy, will win the elections in Spain with a landslide. And yet he has been running such a low-key campaign that one commentator asked whether he intended to take office without anybody noticing. That may be an exaggeration, but if Rajoy is not becoming PM by stealth, he is certainly doing so by default. The economic crisis has made the ruling Socialists unelectable, and the rather uninspiring Rajoy happens to be the only man around. It’s as simple as that.
Even the Socialists seem to agree. They haven’t really tried very hard to win back the confidence of the electorate, and you can understand why: they themselves don’t know what they want. A year and a half ago, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero made the decision to turn his own agenda upside down and began implementing an austerity plan which was, actually, that of his conservative rivals. He didn’t have much of a choice, as this was forced upon him by the US and Europe (meaning Germany). But when you carry out your rivals’ policies you are left with little to say in the next election – especially when those policies fail.
Consequently Zapatero couldn’t bring himself to face the electorate. His replacement, the eloquent if unconvincing Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, made a halfhearted attempt at rallying support to his left, but to no avail. More of a spin doctor than an ideologue, and a former deputy PM at that, he wasn’t credible. He often sounded as if he was criticising his own government’s track record (and that was convincing). Better advised was his effort to provoke the elusive Rajoy into saying at least something about what he intends to do once in office; also to no avail. Rajoy, a man who reads everything he says from paper, even in a televised debate, has mastered the art of “Don Tancredo”, a lesser known form of bullfighting in which the “bullfighter”, all in white like a statue, stays put and does absolutely nothing until the bull gives up, bored.
To Rajoy’s credit, it has worked. The Spanish people have given up too. By electing him they will be choosing an even stronger dose of the very same policies which made them so angry with Zapatero in the first place. Many know that, but they cling to the naive belief that this is a crisis of management, and that new people will provide new answers. Let’s call it the “football coach theory”: change the man at the top and everything will be alright. It only works for dictatorships, and not always then.
And there are, of course, more things in heaven and earth than the economy. I refer to Rajoy’s People’s party as conservative for the sake of familiarity, but rightwing would be more appropriate. Swing voters who believe they’re just electing a new CEO are in for a shock. In fact the economy may be actually the one area in which Rajoy will have little chance to make his mark.
Spain is among those eurozone countries whose borrowing costs are becoming unsustainable. Our fate depends on the European Central Bank buying our bonds, so it will be Brussels setting the agenda in Madrid.
The fantasy that the markets would stop attacking Spain’s sovereign debt once it was clear the country would be likely to have a Conservative government evaporated as bond yields hit record highs. The markets have voted already, and they have chosen “turmoil”, with an absolute majority. Welcome to the hot seat, Rajoy. “Don Tancredo” may consider getting himself a sword and a red rag.
But the irony doesn’t stop here. In the same way that Zapatero has been forced to implement Rajoy’s economic policies, Rajoy may soon have to implement Zapatero’s. The drive towards austerity is clearly stifling growth. Unemployment in Spain is worsening precisely in those sectors targeted by the austerity cuts. Soon we will be hearing calls from Brussels to stimulate the economy. Will Rajoy then be as amenable as Zapatero has been? I think he will. Though we can no longer devalue our currencies in the eurozone, there is still something that can be devalued: the power of our elected governments.
By Miguel-Anxo Murado, a Spanish writer and journalist.