Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Rajoy Era Begins....Again

With 84% of the vote in his favour, the election of Mariano Rajoy to lead the Partido Popular (PP) on Saturday wasn’t overwhelming enough to be classified as “Bulgarian”. However, the combined spoilt and blank votes also didn’t add up to enough to seriously damage the credibility of his election, the pro-Rajoy camp was able to explain away these votes as the work of the Madrid delegates and a few other disaffected supporters of assorted dissidents. Rajoy is now officially candidate for the PP at the next election, and if he finds a good enough reason to postpone the party conference due to be held in 2011 then those who are hoping to unseat him in that year may have to wait. In any case, the system of primaries which has been adopted for future leadership elections is not quite as democratic as it sounds. Candidates will now be obliged to declare their intentions well in advance of the conference and even though they only need 100 signatures to launch their candidacy they will still need to have a minimum of 20% of conference delegates behind them.

Predictably much of the headlines over the weekend were grabbed by a previous leader, Jose Maria Aznar. The hairy one arrived in Valencia in a private plane belonging to an unnamed Guatemalan businessman. Aznar’s jet set lifestyle is not just confined to appearing on the front page of Hola. Despite the hopes of Rajoy’s opponents, Aznar didn’t brandish the knife as openly as they wanted. True, there were various coded and uncoded references which were sufficient to tell the audience that he didn’t approve of what was going on; but in the end he refuses to get bogged down in the infighting. His insistence that the PP doesn’t need to move towards the centre because they have always been there is simply classic Aznar. Perhaps even he can appreciate that joining a conspiracy to unseat the person that he appointed to be his own successor doesn’t leave him looking too clever. The whole Maria San Gil affair was probably designed with the aim of forcing Aznar into the battle. It didn’t work – instead there are constant tributes to her from the anti-Rajoy group but she may well just end up alongside Aznar as another portrait on the wall at PP headquarters.

Meanwhile Aznar’s wife, Ana Botella, now finds herself on the national executive of the PP in what seems to be an unstoppable rise towards the top. Botella, who had no political career of any kind until Aznar left office, gets a promotion every time someone wants to appease her husband, it’s a modern alternative to human sacrifices. At this rate who is to say she won’t end up as party leader? She gets included in those appointees assigned to the camp of Alberto Ruiz Gallardón who also got Manuel Cobo, his main political ally in Madrid, onto the same executive. Gallardón himself has been included in the top group of close advisors to Rajoy. Not surprisingly Esperanza Aguirre is fed up. Although she has some of her people in the new leadership team, they are not the ones she proposed. In fact all of those who have been critical of Rajoy have been left quite ruthlessly out in the cold. There is no place for Espe and her number two Ignacio Gonzalez, Juan Costa, Manuel Pizarro (remember him?) or Gabriel Elorriaga.

The battle is far from over, the list of the excluded is long and there are still the regional PP conferences to come in the next few months. The Madrid one, in particular, promises to be fun as the Aguirre and Gallardón camps will go head to head. Those in Cataluña and the Basque Country also look set to be interesting. In the longer term attention will focus on the elections due to be held in Galicia, the Basque Country and for the European Parliament. Rajoy’s enemies are hoping that their party does badly in these elections, badly enough to make the leader’s position untenable. For the moment though, Rajoy has secured his position; something which looked far from certain at times in the last few weeks. Now, no one can claim that the direction of the PP is not in his hands.

There is no real substance behind this supposed turn of the PP towards the political centre. Rajoy appears to be obsessed with the idea of people voting for the PSOE solely to keep out the PP. So what we get is not a change of principles, instead it’s a policy of not saying anything that sends frightened voters running into the arms of the PSOE. He’s also acted to place women in high level positions in the PP to try and neutralise the effect amongst female voters of Zapatero’s gender balanced government. Rajoy is counting above all on the economic downturn costing the government support and on a softer PP image making them a more acceptable alternative. It might be enough, despite everything that has happened since March the opinion polls show PP support holding up – it takes a lot to shake the loyalty of their voters.

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