With one out of five Spaniards unemployed and more than one million Spanish families facing eviction from their homes, the elections in Spain on Sunday could well have an outcome watched, reported on and studied worldwide: namely, how a genuine conservative government grapples with the issues of debt, unemployment and unrest that are gradually overtaking Europe.
With 48 hours to go, signs are strong that economically savaged Spain will make a sharp turn to the right. One final poll showed that the right-of-center People’s Party (PP) holds a handsome 17-percentage-point lead over the ruling Socialist Party, led by retiring Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
Should that poll figure be translated into votes in the parliamentary elections, then the right will have its largest-ever majority in the 176-seat Chamber of Deputies in the Cortes (parliament) and PP leader Mariano Rajoy will have a free hand as prime minister.
In many ways, Rajoy is his country’s Mitt Romney—a cautious, soft-spoken, business-like conservative who gets higher marks for his administrative expertise than for any charisma or passion evinced on the campaign trail. As one wag put it, “Rajoy is Spanish for Romney.”
“[A] cautious and unsmiling former property registrar and interior minister [who] is not well-loved by Spaniards,” is how Reuters correspondent Fiona Ortiz characterized the 56-year-old Rajoy as minister of education and culture and first deputy prime minister in past right-of-center governments. “But he is seen as a better steward of the economy than [Socialist leader] Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba.”
Given a majority in parliament, a “Prime Minister Rajoy” would be almost certain to make the rigid cuts in government spending that sent Greeks into the streets rioting. The conservative leader makes no secret of his belief that reducing the size of government will stimulate greater bank-lending and investment and thus jump-start the economy. In contrast to other leaders who have spelled out details of cuts on the campaign trail (notably Britain’s David Cameron) and suffered major political hits, Rajoy has campaigned cautiously in this area and offered no specifics.
“His manifesto is maddeningly vague,” wrote the Financial Times’ Victor Mallet of Rajoy’s platform, “but the PP has won the backing of business by promising labor reform, job-creation incentives, a cleanup of the banks, and competent government.”
Like France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Spanish conservative hopeful is almost certain to push for tax cuts on businesses as well as legislation that makes it easier for employers to fire workers. In the twilight days of the race, the Socialists raised the specter of a Rajoy regime closing hospitals and public schools. But having presided over a budget deficit that was 9.2% of Spain’s gross domestic product, and with the nation headed for a major recession, the ruling party has no credibility with which to make such as case.
In the last week, governments in Greece and Italy shifted from being run by Socialist George Papandreou and conservative Silvio Berlusconi respectively to those led by unelected technocrats Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti. If current polls in France remain the same in April, Socialist Francois Hollande will oust conservative Sarkozy as president.
The economic tumult is taking its toll on European governments, and something different seems to be the only certainty about who will be in power next. In Spain, it looks like a conservative government will soon have a free hand—and that’s something worth watching.