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Worse than a year ago

Rajoy faced a hard job, but his handling of the crisis has brought much attrition and few results

Now that 12 months have gone by since Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s landslide electoral victory in November 2011, the historic opportunity the voters gave him has faded into a long-drawn out period of desperate efforts to avoid a full bailout of the Spanish economy by international institutions, and the risk of a breakup of the euro. This country is still mired in the debt crisis, with destruction of employment going on apace (800,000 more unemployed than a year ago), while the nationalization of part of the Spanish banking system still awaits financial aid laboriously negotiated with the euro-zone institutions.

Moreover, Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) government is up against a constitutional crisis. Within his party there are strong demands to recentralize the state, as a way of reducing public spending and improving administrative efficiency; while Catalonia poses an obdurate political problem with a movement in the opposite direction, forged by parties committed to the idea of holding a referendum on secession.

The most negative aspect of the period has been the style of government characteristic of Rajoy. The rarity of his public appearances defines him as a leader who is calm enough, but too remote from an anguished society that would like to see clearer signals. This has made it easier for him to execute political U-turns such as raising taxes, deeply cutting expenditure on public healthcare and education, and putting a “bad bank” in operation. Nor does it seem that he has ever really tried to negotiate with the opposition. He has not even made use of the advantage afforded him by his clear parliamentary majority to keep up the normal tenor of parliamentary procedure, in which the prime minister appears in the chamber from time to time and participates in its functioning. Instead, the conservative administration has abused the privilege of the decree-law.

Of course, Rajoy faced a difficult job as he took the reins of a country in crisis, inherited from the second legislature of his Socialist (PSOE) predecessor José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. The public deficit of nine percent in 2011 was a terrible starting point for compliance with the EU’s demands for austerity and rigor, particularly those of the German government and the European Commission. Now Rajoy says that “the worst is over.” We can only hope he is right, but he has left scraps of his credibility by the wayside as he ignores advice as reasonable as that of ending the two-headed ministerial situation in economic and financial affairs, or of seeking agreement with the opposition in the sharing of the burdens deriving from the crisis, and in reforms of particularly far-reaching nature.

The worst consequence is that it is now difficult to discern just what course the ship of state is on; while the mainstream political parties, the PP and the PSOE, are both showing strong signs of wear and tear in terms of public opinion — to which the prime minister is by no means an exception — in the face of an escalation of popular protest. Instead of standing alone against a crisis of exceptional severity, he is still in time to seek support from the more responsible sectors of society and the political world.

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