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Farewell to arms?

The open, shameless populism so long practiced by Aguirre ought to exempt her from suspicion that this might be a covert operation to keep herself in reserve

Politics is largely showmanship, and in the last ten years no one on the Spanish political scene has been so proficient at it as Esperanza Aguirre. On Monday she showed her flair again in announcing her retirement from politics - against the background of a Popular Party springing leaks in spite of a clear parliamentary majority, a prime minister who doesn't know which way to turn between the EU demands and the clamor of protest from the street, and the sudden talk of secession coming from the government of Catalonia. Aguirre has at least neutralized the hostility of her many enemies by mentioning her "presumably cured" cancer as one of the reasons for her retirement.

The occasion showed once more her sense of spectacle. Since Monday noon all the media have been teeming with comments, almost unanimously respectful of a person who never spared hard words against her adversaries and had no scruples about turning the regional public television into a platform of personal propaganda, or adjudicating digital TV frequencies to members of her right-wing tribe.

Apart from the infighting in her party, in which Aguirre participated until just the other day, publicly disagreeing with Rajoy concerning the release of the imprisoned ETA terrorist Bolinaga, the PP now loses a formidable electoral attraction. Her three consecutive victories in Madrid regional elections have by now almost buried her original sin of having attained the premiership by buying the votes of two regional deputies.

True to the end, she has left her succession ironclad in the person of her longtime number-two, Ignacio González, who took no part in Monday's show, watching the broadcast in his office, then issuing a statement saying he understands her "personal reasons."

The open, shameless populism so long practiced by Aguirre ought to exempt her from suspicion that this might be a covert operation to keep herself in reserve, should some cataclysm happen within the PP. But this is a hypothesis that no one ventures to rule out, even if she has said that hers is an irreversible decision. She spoke of crossing the Rubicon, like Caesar at the head of his legions; certainly not a peaceful metaphor.

At the age of 60, her reference to the temporary nature of her political vocation is the least credible point of her farewell speech, after half a life of frenetic activity, shunning no battle within or without her party. Her admired Margaret Thatcher held the reins of power until, at 65, she was forced out by a rebellion within her party. Allowing for differences, Aguirre has earned such a reputation as a political animal that this sudden, unexpected withdrawal invites perplexity, if not distrust.

The legacy she takes most pride in is the extension of bilingual (Spanish/English) education, while what she most regrets are her frequent gaffes, some so resounding that she has often felt obliged to issue public apologies. A closer examination of her nine years of regional government reveals an educational model that has showered public subsidies on private schools that receive public funding, largely Church-run. In number of pupils at the lower educational levels, schools of this type now surpass public schools, which have suffered repeated budget cuts. There is also a network of underused highways around Madrid, which are now going bankrupt, after filling the coffers of big construction firms.

The Madrileños, who already have a city mayoress they never voted for (Ana Botella) since Ruiz-Gallardón left to become justice minister, will now have a regional premier (Ignacio González) they never voted for either. All strictly legal, of course, but a bit unedifying, at a time when politics is already under a general shadow of discredit. Aguirre once remarked that there should be a death penalty for architects, because their works survive them. She, too, leaves works that in the best of cases will take decades to remedy.

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