In 2004, when all polls had promised him victory in the elections, Islamist terrorists bombed four trains in Madrid, killing 192 and handing an unforeseen win to the opposition Socialists. He accepted defeat gracefully. In 2008, he lost again after telling the blunt truth about the economic crisis, while his opponent, José Luis Rodriguez Zapa-tero, lied about the tsunami coming from Wall Street and Spain’s ability to resist the devastation.
This time around, 4.5 million of those who believed Zapatero three years ago deserted the Socialists after waking up to reality. Only a tenth of them voted for Mariano Rajoy, but, added to his 10 million faithful voters, they were enough.
Prime minister–elect of Spain after the crushing victory of his center-right People’s Party (PP) on Nov. 20—in the 11th general election since Franco’s death—Rajoy has been called everything but pretty in his 30-year political career.
In his numerous ups and downs, his few declared enemies and many of his comrades-in-arms—often the most dangerous force in politics—have painted him variously as lazy, soft, boring, “lite,” technocratic, and un-charismatic. Not even his main electoral adviser mentioned him by name when explaining the record number (186 out of 345 seats) just won by the PP. “Radi-cally new circumstances [the economic and financial crisis] and a government [Zapatero’s] managing it very badly were key,” he said.
Without José Maria Aznar’s inspiring rhetoric, Felipe Gonzalez’s geniality, or Zapatero’s charm, Rajoy, 56—five times a minister with Aznar, and a property registrar before entering politics in his native Galicia in the early 1980s—would be the last one to claim any virtuosity for himself.
“The way he manages time often drives his closer advisers and adversaries crazy, but history proves that he does it with intelligence, thinking more of the long term than the short,” ex-plains Jorge Moragas, an ex-diplomat who’s been one of Rajoy’s confidants. “His supposed laziness is a product of propaganda. He never dyes his hair, is not a homosexual, and he practices what I’d call lay Taoism,” Moragas adds. “He watches little TV, admires Churchill, walks for an hour every morning, and works from dawn to dusk.”
In the past few months, twice a week for three hours, Rajoy has taken English lessons, trying to overcome the con-spicuous deficiency in foreign languages of every Spanish prime minister.
As a professed Catholic with a Protestant ethos, Rajoy is mad about sports, a Real Madrid fan whose imposing height led him to play basketball in his youth. He enjoys cycling holidays, and, usefully in politics, he has always taken criticism with good humor. Down to earth in his actions, a man of his word according to friends and rivals, he is the polar opposite of Zapatero.
The big question: can Spain, with 5 million unemployed in a ragged economy, survive without urgent surgery? Reading his first message to the PP executive committee, Rajoy sounded ready to brandish a scalpel. Spain would “take all measures,” “put our house in order,” and “assume our responsibilities.” None of this is specific, but it signals an intent to make essential reforms. And for this at least, Angela Merkel must breathe a sigh of relief.