MADRID, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Mariano Rajoy, poised to become Spain’s new prime minister after Sunday’s election, is a cautious moderate who makes an unlikely crisis manager for a country engulfed in the euro zone’s debt crisis.
The colourless 56-year-old former interior minister struggles to crack a smile and his huge, 17 percentage point lead in opinion polls is built more on mistakes by the Socialists, in power for the past seven years, than on his own vision or inspiration.
Still, his centre-right People’s Party is expected to win by a landslide with voters blaming the Socialists for economic woes that have pushed the country’s unemployment rate to 22 percent, the highest in the European Union. The country is expected to head back into recession next year.
Financial markets are looking to Rajoy for swift action to prevent Spain being sucked deeper into the euro zone debt crisis. On Thursday the country had to pay 6.98 percent interest to buyers of a 10-year bond, just shy of the 7 percent mark seen as untenable.
But Rajoy, who studied law and worked as a land registrar before getting into politics in his mid-20s, is better known for self-restraint, for listening carefully to advisors and for preaching patience than for taking strong initiatives or inspiring his followers.
The son of a judge, Rajoy has the impenetrable demeanour typical of his native Galicia in northern Spain, where people are famed for their reserve and for answering a question with a question.
“He will make the right decisions, but as in the rest of the European Union right now, the question is whether the decisions can be made in time,” said Jose Maria Areilza, dean of the IE law school in Madrid.
Rajoy, who has little international experience and limited English, is expected to name a heavyweight economy minister to deepen painful austerity measures at home and travel abroad to persuade investors that Spain has its accounts in order.
After being elected to several local and regional posts in Galicia in the 1980s, Rajoy moved to Madrid and served in four different ministerial posts under Jose Maria Aznar, Spain’s pro-Washington prime minister from 1996-2004.
Aznar named Rajoy to succeed him as party leader, and if it had not been for an Islamist attack on Madrid commuter trains three days before the 2004 parliamentary election, he would probably already have been prime minister by now.
Aznar wrongly blamed Basque separatist group ETA for the train bombings, which were carried out by Islamist extremists, handing a surprise victory to the Socialists. Rajoy ran and lost again in 2008 and was savaged even by the right-wing press.
But he survived an attempt to oust him, quietly getting rid of the old Aznar conservatives and moving the PP toward the centre. His discrete power plays and pragmatic independence differentiate him from typical PP leaders, known for their ideological force or authoritarian style.
“He’s a long-distance runner, not a sprinter, and the economic crisis needs long-distance runners,” said member of parliament Jose Maria Lassalle, a PP moderate, contrasting Rajoy with his Socialist rival Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, who was a sprinter in his youth.
“He embodies a type of soft power, little inclined to impose things, more about convincing, and that’s what Spain needs right now most of all,” said Lassalle, who has known Rajoy for eight years.
Rajoy should be in tune with Europe’s current, mostly conservative, leaders. However, some critics complain he has not sufficiently fostered a relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel-- a key ally as Spain and the entire euro zone try to fend off market attacks.
Rajoy, who has a beard first grown when the scars from a serious car accident prevented him from shaving, is married with two children.
Schooled by Roman Catholic nuns, he laments the decline of Latin studies in Spanish schools. His stable provincial family background appears to make it difficult for him to relate to young Spaniards frustrated with a youth jobless rate of more than 40 percent.
He is dismissive of the “Indignados” (or Indignant) movement that took over public squares in May to protest against the political status quo and inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement worldwide.
He smokes the occasional cigar and walks for exercise, a “minimum 31 days a month” he quips. A former cyclist, he is a fan of that sport as well as football -- he follows the Real Madrid team.
Until recently the reserved Rajoy had a dismal approval rating in opinion polls as Spaniards questioned whether he understood their problems. But perceptions have lifted as voters turned to his party to heal the economy.
“Who cares if he is boring if he’s winning?” said one of his advisors, who asked not to be named.
By Fiona Ortiz; Additional reporting by Elisabeth O'Leary and Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Barry Moody