by Eli S. Evans

Mariano Rajoy’s date with the Spanish presidency has arrived some eight years late. In 2004, as the handpicked successor to José María Aznar, Rajoy’s electoral victory was all but guaranteed. The years of rapid growth over which Aznar had presided, as the ruling Partido Popular’s undisputed top dog and president of the PP-controlled government, had in reality created an altogether untenable economic situation for which Spain would soon have to pay the proverbial piper, but amidst so much bounty confidence in Aznar’s leadership remained robust. Aznar, meanwhile, had no plans to relinquish that position of leadership, nor to cede ideological control of his party or the country; he simply wanted somebody to take his place as president, tending to the day-to-day administrative and bureaucratic duties to which that office corresponds without getting in the way of his neo-conservative political program.

Polls had promised a PP whitewash in 2004, but days before the elections Al-Qaeda terrorists detonated three bombs at Madrid’s Atocha train station, killing almost 200 morning commuters. The PP reacted badly, and in bad faith, to the tragedy. Fearing that if interpreted by the public as an act of retaliation, those attacks might provide a late boost for the opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español, whose leaders had protested Aznar’s decision to involve Spain in the second Iraq War, the PP tried to pin responsibility on the Basque separatist organization ETA. Their deception was uncovered quickly and a wave of public outrage carried the PSOE to power behind its young leader, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Not long after, Aznar headed for the United States to hang out with his neo-conservative buddies in Washington and collect hefty consulting fees, leaving Rajoy standing awkwardly at the head of the PP table, looking like somebody who had attended the reading of a will expecting to get the house but ended up with the TV instead. Many, both inside and outside of the party, expected him to make way for young blood at the top of the ticket, but he refused. Instead, the man who would be president – and then suddenly wasn’t – held on, and waited.

Now Rajoy has at last claimed the prize that was supposed to have been his, inheriting it not from Aznar, ironically, but from the man who snatched it from his grasp in 2004. Over the past eight years, Zapatero has overseen, clumsily and with an utterly dispiriting lack of conviction, an economic crisis that has for all intents and purposes returned Spain to the European periphery. That crisis is of course just one local outcropping of a global economic crisis the ultimate consequences are very much still to be determined, but in Spain Zapatero has been granted no reprieve. He has literally been booed out of office: on election day, angry onlookers shouted insults toward him when he arrived at his local precinct to cast his vote. The candidate for whom he presumably cast that vote, Alfonso Rubalcaba, did not even pretend that victory was the objective of his campaign; that, rather, was simply winning enough seats in the new parliament to prevent the PP from attaining an absolute majority. In the end, not only did the PP win that absolute majority, despite Rubalcaba’s seemingly earnest efforts, but it won the largest majority every held by either party since the end of the dictatorship: 186 of the 350 available parliamentary seats. In the four years between now and the next elections, there will be no need for discussion, no need for debate, no need for the slightest semblance of consensus. Rajoy has finally received his inheritance, and now he can spend it any way he wants.

Just how he will do so, of course, is the question that nobody can answer, in large part because Rajoy himself has never answered it. During the lead-up to the 2004 elections, Rajoy did his best to keep quiet and not screw things up, and when he was absolutely required to speak he said as little as possible, sticking to vague generalities and empty platitudes. So it was once again in the recent electoral campaign. In interviews, at rallies, and during debates, he declared unemployment his most important adversary, promised unity and moderation, and even in recognizing the “shameful” situation in which Spain today finds itself pledged to, in the interest of that unity and moderation, leave it up to others to assign blame. If there is something obviously depressing about a candidate – and now president – so unwilling to take a position, articulate an agenda, stake out an ideological territory, there is also something refreshingly, if brutally, honest about it. With Spain on the brink of default and insolvency, Rajoy – who over the past year claims to have dedicated himself to learning economics as though it were English – the big decisions are going to be made by the ECB, powerful credit rating agencies, and the newly constituted Franco-German alliance, all of whom have already called for the implementation of a punishing package of so-called austerity measures in Spain. In the meantime, a president will still be necessary – someone willing to hold the office, and tend to the various administrative and bureaucratic tasks to which it corresponds without getting in the way. Now, as before, Rajoy is the man for that job.

About the Author:

Eli S. Evans is a writer and a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He writes regularly for magazines such as N+1, in the United States, and Quimera, in Spain, and has work forthcoming from Zg Press and in a collection of essays about the late writer and social theorist Monique Wittig. His academic research focuses on the intersections of modernity and postmodernity in twentieth century Spanish literature and philosophy.