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article imageMariano Rajoy, solidly in charge in Spain

By Patrick RAHIR (AFP)     Feb 16, 2017 in World

Often criticised for his "wait-and-see" approach, Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has outfoxed rivals to govern without serious competition, making him a rare European leader to survive the region's debt crisis.

The 61-year-old was re-elected at the helm of the Popular Party (PP) this month with 95 percent of the vote, a result comparable only to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's score when she was last re-elected chairwoman of her CDU.

No candidate challenged Rajoy's bid to remain at the PP's helm, while opposition parties were exhausted by internal conflicts.

New far-left party Podemos, which has upended Spanish politics, on Sunday kept pony-tailed professor Pablo Iglesias as its leader after a lengthy battle over what path the group should take.

He routed the party's number two, Inigo Errejon, who was in favour of cooperating with the main opposition Socialists -- the only viable alternative to a PP government.

The Socialists said they "deeply deplored" the "victory of Pablism-Leninism which cuts bridges with the left".

The Socialists have not overcome the crisis that shook the party last year when it ousted its leader Pedro Sanchez because he was determined to prevent Rajoy from being sworn in for a second term after two inconclusive general elections.

- 'Mastery of time' -

Just a year ago, Rajoy was criticised within his own ranks for losing the PP's absolute majority in parliament in a December 2015 general election, following voter anger of the government's austerity measures and a string of corruption scandals.

After four years in office, his days in power seemed numbered. New centrist party Ciudadanos demanded his resignation as head of the PP as the price for an alliance with the party.

Rajoy even turned down an invitation from King Felipe VI to try to form a government since he knew that no other party was willing to ally itself with the PP.

But he waited patiently for Sanchez to fail in his bid to form a governing coalition, which made a return to the polls inevitable.

The PP improved its score in a second general election in June 2016, capturing 33 percent of the vote, up from 28.7 percent in December 2015, and Rajoy was able to form a minority government.

Polls show the PP would score an even bigger win if elections were held today.

"He is a leader without charisma, but he has a perfect mastery of time and an incredible knowledge of decision-making mechanisms," said political consultant Narciso Michavila, a former campaign advisor to Rajoy.

A major challenge remains on the home front though. The separatist parties that govern the wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia have vowed to hold an independence referendum this year despite his warnings that it would be illegal.

- 'Merkel of the south' -

Trained as a lawyer, Rajoy turned to politics at a young age and slowly climbed the rungs of the party. He has been criticised in Spain for keeping a low profile on the international stage.

But Ignacio Molina, of the Elcano Institute, a Madrid think tank, said Spanish politicians rarely focus on foreign affairs.

On the other hand they tend to remain in power longer than their European peers -- at least eight years -- and during their second term in office have a good mastery of the issues and a higher profile, he added.

When Rajoy arrived in power Spain was on the brink of bankruptcy which partly explains his discreetness on the international stage, Molina said.

"When you are practically on the operating table, it is difficult to say where or how to operate," he said.

"Rajoy sets very simple priorities and he sticks to them."

Aware of the balance of forces in Europe, he has sought to satisfy Germany and Brussels by reducing Spain's public deficit and its borrowing costs by carrying out unpopular structural reforms.

"He is a prudent man, little inclined to improvisation and adventures," said Francisco de Borja, the head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Affairs, a think tank.

"Ironically this lack of visibility which has been criticised as a weakness could be an asset today, to the extent that adventurers" like (former British prime minister David) Cameron and (former Italian prime minister Matteo) Renzi have left the scene.

"Rajoy like Merkel is a survivor, he is the Merkel of the south," he added.

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