The socially conservative Mariano Rajoy (pictured with Nick Clegg during the latter's recent visit to Spain) who holds tough views on immigration has lost two elections since succeeding José María Aznar as leader of El Partido Popular (the Popular Party (PP)). The defeat in 2004 – an election he was expected to win – followed the Madrid train bombings and voter anger at the PP's rushed and unjustified attempt to lay the blame on the ETA separatists.
The economic troubles engulfing the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero may mean Rajoy will finally become Prime Minister in 2012. The latest opinion polls give the PP a 10.5% lead over the socialists but, notes The Economist, there is no great enthusiasm for Rajoy. Two-thirds of Spaniards think he has been indulgent of his own party's corrupt tendencies. Only 20% of voters approve of the way he leads his party. 77% of all Spaniards want both the two main parties to have different leaders by the time of the election.
Rajoy's weaknesses are likely to be overwhelmed, however, by the dire state of the economy. 20% of Spain – 4.6 million workers – can't find work. The unemployment rate was just 11% when Zapatero came to power. Zapatero is having to make budget cuts of $18bn over the next two years as a first effort to reduce the country's deficit (currently 10% of GDP). The cuts include a 5% reduction in civil service pay and a 15% cut in the pay of cabinet ministers. Rajoy has opposed some of these cuts, including a freeze in pensions. This may win him short-term popularity but risks undermining his overall credibility. His credibility is a product of many years of having warned Zapatero that he was spending recklessly.
Zapatero leads a minority government and there is speculation that he could be voted out of office in the autumn. Tacticians around Rajoy believe that the socialists should be given more time to drown in their economic mess and take some of the more painful decisions at the same time. A 2012 election remains most likely.