Rajoy’s other risk premium

As the prime minister embarks on the second half of his mandate, the Bárcenas scandal looks unlikely to go away Meanwhile, the economy is yet to show signs of recovery

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.ULY MARTÍN

The story goes that when Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took office at the beginning of 2012, he downloaded an app for his iPad that monitored in real time the ups and downs of Spain's borrowing costs compared to Germany's, and spent most of his time and energy weighing up the pros and cons of seeking a bailout from the European Union.

Six months later, when he took a short summer break, he had resorted to seeking a bailout for the country's banking system, but was still unsure whether Brussels would have to send in the "men in black" to take over running the economy, as they had in Portugal, Ireland and Greece. The cost of borrowing was still exorbitantly, unsustainably high, and when he returned from his vacation in September, Rajoy was once again entirely absorbed by the economy.

A year on, and Spain's borrowing costs have leveled to those of other EU states, and there is no more talk of an EU bailout; some optimists are even saying that there are signs the economy might be turning. But now Rajoy is worried about another cost, this time political — and there is no app that he can use to monitor it. Luis Bárcenas, the former treasurer of Rajoy's Popular Party (PP), is currently being held in jail while he undergoes questioning by a High Court judge about how he acquired a multi-million-euro fortune, as well as allegations he has made that senior PP figures, among them Rajoy, received thousands of euros from donations made to the party by construction companies.

Rajoy finally appeared before Congress on August 1 to discuss Bárcenas' accusations, while the PP's secretary general, María Dolores de Cospedal, along with her two predecessors, have testified before a judge. If anything, these attempts to calm the waters have had the opposite effect: Rajoy was evasive, while De Cospedal and company's statements simply reopened old wounds within the party.

On Monday, Rajoy returned to work after the summer break, facing a new term with his popularity and credibility at a new low, as an opinion poll carried out by Metroscopia for EL PAÍS shows. But thanks to his absolute majority in Congress, his position is not under threat, given that he is protected by a system that does not require him to offer any further answers to the many questions raised by the Bárcenas case.

Rajoy is protected by a system that does not require him to offer any answers

The PP is confident that the Socialist Party (PSOE) leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba will not try to present a motion of no confidence in Congress, aware that after backing down from doing so in July, he would be putting his own political future at stake were he to attempt it now. Rajoy and the PP leadership have their story straight: the Socialists are using the Bárcenas affair to make political capital, and in so doing are undermining Spain's international credibility. The ranks have closed, and it looks as though the PP will go head-to-head with the Socialists over the coming months. The PP's goal now is to win back the support of its voters — the Metroscopia poll shows that the party would win just 35 percent of the vote in an election tomorrow, a record low — in the run-up to municipal, European, regional and national elections over the next two years.

In this, the second half of his mandate, Rajoy was hoping for some signs of economic revival that would make up for the party's drop in popularity due to ever-deeper spending cuts. At the end of this year, for example, the prime minister will present his tax reform proposals, which will be introduced next year, and that he hopes will do something to improve his popularity.

All the signs point to a Cabinet reshuffle in the coming months. So far, nobody in the party has given any indication of who might be going or who might be coming, presumably on the basis that any changes would likely be seen in the context of Rajoy's appearance before Congress and an assignation of responsibilities for the Bárcenas mess. But in private, many in the PP accept that there will be a reshuffle, a move that would allow the government to retake the political initiative, principally to protect Cospedal. That said, Rajoy has always taken his own time to do things, and will doubtless give the matter considerable thought before acting.

Among the names being discussed, say PP sources, is that of Agriculture Minister Miguel Arias Cañete, who may stand in the European elections next June. Meanwhile, now that José Antonio Griñán, the head of the Socialist Party-run regional administration in Andalusia, has stepped down, the PP will be looking for a strong candidate, should early elections be called, as seems likely.

Bárcenas' attacks against Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, blaming him in part for the PP's woes, probably mean that he is safe for the moment. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saénz de Santamaría, who has her enemies in the party, has successfully kept out of the scandal, leaving others to come to Rajoy's aid, and also looks likely to hold on to her post.

Despite the Bárcenas affair, the government has taken its vacation this year. One minister says that this was a deliberate move by Rajoy, who wanted to give the appearance that the former treasurer's accusations were unfounded, and that nobody in the Cabinet had anything to fear. Last year, ministers were only given two weeks off, and were not allowed to leave the country in case the dreaded bailout materialized.

It is worth noting that we have heard very little from the government's economic team this summer. There has been no talk of the economy, aside from a couple of discreet comments from Industry Minister José Manuel Soria and Economy Minister Luis de Guindos over the weekend, who suggested that the latest economic data offer some signs of a recovery, or at least that the recession has finally hit bottom.

The justice minister is hoping to finalize his abortion reform plans

In contrast, Foreign Affairs Minister José Manuel García-Margallo and Interior Minister Jorge Fernández have been vociferous in defending Spain's interests in Gibraltar, all of which is widely seen as little more than a public relations exercise.

The PP's hopes of using the summer to plan ahead were frustrated by the appearance of the party's present and former secretary generals before High Court Judge Pablo Ruz. This week will see the party's number three, Carlos Floriano, testify. The PP's line, aside from blaming Rubalcaba for everything, is to give the impression now that the investigation in Bárcenas' accusations is coming to a close, and that in all likelihood, later this fall, the case will be closed. In other words, keep calm and carry on.

Nevertheless, this term begins much as the previous one ended, with the party damaged by the corruption allegations. The attempt to give the impression of business as usual will be challenged today, when Congress - with the exception of the PP - will press Rajoy to provide further explanations regarding Bárcenas' accusations. Even the Catalan nationalists from CiU, who largely kept in the background last July when Rubalcaba presented his motion of no-confidence, now seem prepared to demand answers.

The next step could be a call for a vote that would force the Socialists in Congress to begin further proceedings against Rajoy for supposedly lying about Bárcenas. This would be the first time in Spain's modern history that Congress would be asked to vote to admonish a prime minister, assuming that the PP doesn't block the initiative. Either way, it is not clear whether the rules of Congress would allow for such a move, which would have less serious consequences than a motion of censure or no confidence.

Halfway through his mandate, Rajoy faces attack on all fronts, starting with his proposed education reform, which on Wednesday will see José Ignacio Wert explain changes to the grants system before Congress.

The PM will also be attempting to address international affairs, including Gibraltar

In the coming weeks, the PP wants to establish formal contacts with the Socialist Party on appointing new members to the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), the body that oversees the Spanish legal system, a process that has traditionally been characterized by horse trading between the two main parties. The government has pushed through reforms to the way the CGPJ is supposed to be elected, and that would lead the way, in theory, to reforms of the allocation of Senate seats. Meanwhile, Gallardón hopes to finalize his proposals to restrict abortion rights, a move that is not only opposed by the Socialists and other groups in Congress, but also by some sectors of the Justice Minister's own party, including several Cabinet members.

Responding to the public anger at the Bárcenas scandal, the government also intends to introduce anti-corruption measures that Rajoy has been talking about since February, but which he has yet to specify. Rajoy will also be attempting to address international affairs as he enters the second half of his mandate, with visits to Buenos Aires — where he will be reportedly looking to team up with the Argentinean government to present a united front against the United Kingdom on the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar — and Russia. He will not be attending the Spain-China Forum, to be held in Beijing on September 12. The official reason is the Chinese leadership's agenda, but it should be noted that the day before, Catalonia will hold its national day, the Diada, which this year promises to be particularly difficult. The celebrations in the region will coincide with the government's first question time in Congress, when it can expect to be quizzed extensively on the Bárcenas affair, as well as Catalonia's planned referendum on independence.

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