Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Rajoy: Close But No Cigar?

Mariano Rajoy will have been puffing on his New Year's havana with a degree of contentment. Back where he clearly believes he belongs - in perpetuity it can seem - the occupant of the Moncloa can blow calm smoke rings with the satisfaction of knowing that for all the trials of last year (and not just those to do with political uncertainty), no rival is hovering to dispossess him, while the poll rating continues to edge further upwards.

There was, however, an unwelcome piece of news to disturb him over Christmas. He received a phone call from Tony's little friend (the Tony being Blair and the friendship dating back to the Iraq War). The permanently jet-black-haired José María Aznar phoned Rajoy to tell him that he was relinquishing his post as honorary president of the Partido Popular. He will now only be like any other member of the party. Not that he can ever be that; he remains in the PP undergrowth, a diminutively towering presence, prepared at any moment to spring out and spray dye in casting doubts on the Rajoy way forward.

Aznar and Rajoy were once good friends. Wikileaks, though, showed that Aznar was not entirely convinced about Rajoy. This lack of conviction would seem to have lessened still over the years. The phone call would have come as a surprise. They have barely been on speaking terms. The PP hierarchy as a whole was surprised, but for a different reason. Aznar's decision hadn't been expected. But now that it has been delivered, Aznar and his foundation, which formally split from the PP in October, can act independently: a thorn in Rajoy's side, if Aznar so chooses.

Former and defeated leaders in Spain don't do the honourable thing and disappear. Felipe González was hardly a neutral figure in the moves which led to the purging of Pedro Sánchez as PSOE leader. Likewise, Aznar is there, forever lingering and lurking, his discontent with Rajoy seemingly more personal than based on pure politics or policies.

The breach might therefore not augur well for Rajoy, who has discovered - to everyone's lesser surprise than the Aznar manoeuvre - that PSOE is unwilling to give him a clear run with the 2017 budget. In fact, it is placing an enormous obstacle in the way and seems likely to present an amendment to the entire budget. Ultimately, this could mean yet another election.

So Rajoy may instead have been spluttering as he drew on his havana. If PSOE, emboldened despite its enfeebled state by having granted Rajoy licence to stay on as premier, now chooses to exploit this magnanimity and challenge the budget to the point of mortality, it will be a case of close but no cigar for the latest Rajoy project.

However, there is what the public thinks, and it is this which can allow Rajoy his moments of tranquil puffing. The latest poll by Sigma Dos for "El Mundo" shows the PP to still be in the ascendant. The rating, compared with the June election, has increased by 1.8% to 34.8%. It remains a distance away from what it was when Rajoy won in 2011, but the momentum upwards is not being interrupted.

As much as Rajoy can be satisfied with this rise, he can also take note of PSOE's further decline with satisfaction. The poll reveals a 3.3% drop since June: now only 19.4%, and Unidos Podemos, despite seemingly intent on splitting themselves asunder (the Podemos element, that is), have experienced their own increase to 22.5%. The poll's finding therefore makes the words of PSOE's Mario Jiménez sound foolhardy. He has been the one saying that the party will place the budget amendment. He has also said that if Rajoy does choose to call an election, he will "not catch PSOE off-guard". He might not, but PSOE being on-guard holds absolutely no guarantee of an improved electoral performance: quite the contrary in fact.

Then there is the Podemos question. Around the same time as the PP holds its congress next month (Aznar will not be attending), Podemos have theirs. The war between the Iglesias and Errejón factions will probably end in defeat for Errejón. Even if it were the other way (and Iglesias has said he will step down, if this is the result), what will happen? It's possible that nothing will, but the battle lines are entrenched. If Podemos were to split, then the left as a whole in Spain will be split more than it already is. This would only bolster Rajoy further, he - and the PP's poll rating - having gained as a result of the long hiatus before the October investiture; this hiatus having been partly the consequence of the left's inability to arrive at anything approaching consensus.

Aznar is an irritation. The budget issue is more of an aggravation. But even another election would see Rajoy secure. There's no one challenging him.

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