Whether they love him or hate him, everyone respects Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. The Socialist politician with the furrowed brow and amber eyes has a reputation for being a hard worker and an excellent negotiator. Members of parliament from across the political spectrum describe him as dependable, journalists have singled him out as the most brilliant public speaker in parliament, and even his conservative opponents admit that he's one of the most impressive politician the country has seen.
This Sunday, Nov. 20, Spaniards will have a chance to make the 60-year-old Rubalcaba their new prime minister. But they will almost certainly elect a different man, instead, one who lacks charisma and has revealed little about his plans.
This likely election result has far more to do with the debt crisis than with the talented Mr. Rubalcaba. All polls indicate that his party, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), will trail the conservative Popular Party (PP) in the upcoming parliamentary elections. If things go as predicted, Mariano Rajoy, the PP's leader, would even be able to take over the country's government with an absolute majority.
A Growing Sense of Disappointment
Cartoonists like to depict the 56-year-old Rajoy, a notary public from Galicia in Spain's northwestern corner, relaxing and puffing on a Cuban cigar in a nod to his tendency to put problems off until later instead of tackling them head-on. His individual standing in the polls isn't particularly impressive, either. But none of this is much help to Rubalcaba.
"This isn't the most pleasant situation I've ever faced," says Rubalcaba, who served as Spain's interior minister until July as well as deputy prime minister under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the country's burnt-out prime minister. Rubalcaba is left running an election campaign that has to work against his own party's reputation.
His efforts will most likely come to naught. The PSOE spent too long denying the economic crisis. Only massive pressure from Brussels finally forced Zapatero to retract the benefits he had doled out in better days to civil servants, retirees, students and young parents. Since Spain's real estate market collapsed three years ago, the ranks of the country's unemployed have swollen to nearly 5 million. Over 45 percent of young people in Spain are out of work, which represents the highest level for any of the EU's 27 countries.
In May, it was the " indignados ," the masses of primarily young "indignant" protestors, who took their cause to the street throughout the country. And, one week later, they punished the PSOE in regional and local elections this May.
A Protest Vote
The atmosphere of spreading revolt and the disappointment felt toward the left-wing government after it suddenly switched to pursuing a harsh austerity course are both factors that the Popular Party is using to its own advantage. Many voters believe the conservative party would handle economic issues more adroitly.
Rajoy claims to have visited "nearly every village" in the country over the last few years. As his party's former campaign manager, he knows that the opposition can only seize power once enough frustration with the sitting government has built up among voters.
In this case, Rajoy doesn't even need to fan the flames any further -- which is a lucky break for him since he's far from being a perfect campaigner himself. For example, at a release party for his new autobiography held at a hotel in Madrid, he read his speech, including its jokes, word for word from a hand-written cheat sheet. He said that he'd noted down a few ideas in his book on how to bring about necessary change in Spain, but that he hadn't hammered out any concrete suggestions. Since he's in the habit of keeping his promises, he added, he'd rather hold off before making any. On Monday, Nov. 7, at a televised debate between the two candidates, Rajoy likewise relied completely on his note cards.
The Talker v. the Thinker
Indeed, in terms of temperament, the two men competing for the job of saving the deeply indebted country and the euro zone's fourth-largest economy couldn't be more different. Rubalcaba, who comes from northern Spain's coastal Cantabria region, ran the 100-meter dash with nearly record times as a young man and was only prevented from pursuing a career as a sprinter by injury. He joined the Socialist party during his university years, while studying chemistry. During this time, he came to oppose Franco, Spain's dictator from the late 1930s until his death in 1975, even though Rubalcaba's father had fought on his regime's side in the Spanish Civil War.
Rubalcaba likes to listen to classical music on his iPod while reading the daily newspapers. He enjoys debating and even boasts that, in conversation, he can be "as penetrating as a proton and as subtle as a wave."
On the other hand, his challenger, Rajoy, first ran for a seat in Galicia's parliament at the age of 26, even though his father, a judge, had discouraged him from going into politics. He says it was friends in the Popular Party that prompted him to join the same party as fellow Galician Manuel Fraga Iribarne, who had held a number of ministerial positions under Franco. Rajoy thinks in a very legalistic way, and he says he doesn't like to discuss matters until he fully understands all their details. When in doubt -- or angry -- he doesn't speak at all.
Similar Paths toward the Top
At the same time, both of the men's political careers have followed a similar path. Rubalcaba joined Felipe González's first government in 1982, when he was a professor, holding various positions, including that of education minister and government spokesman. In 2004, Zapatero named him chairman of the Socialists' parliamentary group. During his term as interior minister, starting in 2006, he had a decisive role in bringing ETA, the Basque separatist terrorist organization, under control. "I've always been a man of action," Rubalcaba says.
The conservative Rajoy has led the same ministries in addition to holding important positions within his party, first in Galicia and then at the national level. Rubalcaba warns that, despite being a wonderful person, Rajoy would make a very bad head of state since a prime minister must make important decisions without a second's pause. And unlike Rubalcaba, the "man of action," Rajoy is seen as indecisive and hesitant.
Rajoy's Plan-less Philosophy
Victory already seemed certain for Rajoy once before, when José María Aznar, the conservative prime minister between 1996 and 2004, the years of Spain's economic miracle, named his right-hand man to be his successor. Then, three days before elections were to be held in March 2004, 191 people died in bomb attacks on commuter trains in Madrid.
The conservatives immediately spread the word that ETA was responsible, but then it emerged that Islamic fundamentalists associated with al-Qaida were the primary suspects. Rubalcaba, who was Zapatero's campaign manager at the time, stated on the evening news that "the Spanish people deserve a government that doesn't lie to them." The election ended in a catastrophe for the conservatives.
Since that electoral defeat, Rajoy has survived all attempted coups within his party by simply waiting them out. However, he has no illusions about the fact that his country has tough years ahead. International analysts predict the country won't enjoy an economic recovery until 2016. The political challenger has pledged to reduce Spain's budget deficit to 4.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2012. Last year, it stood at 9.2 percent.
Rajoy also approves of the strict austerity policy followed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fellow conservative. After years of stonewalling Prime Minister Zapatero, he finally agreed to anchor a debt brake into Spain's constitution similar to the one Germany introduced into its constitution in 2009. The balanced budget and debt-reduction amendment forces the government to reduce its structural deficit, the recurring gap between revenues and spending.
Yet Rajoy has remained mum on how exactly he plans to reach his cost-cutting targets, most likely because he doesn't want voters to start fearing the conservatives. What he will says is that he wants to "roll out the red carpet" for businesses and make it possible for them to create jobs. He also wants to cut taxes and believes wages and salaries should be negotiated primarily within companies themselves. Indeed, Rajoy has been careful not to say it directly, but analysts in the Popular Party are convinced that reducing labor costs will be the only way to increase productivity.
Rubalcaba's Plan without a Future
Rubalcaba, on the other hand, never grows tired of explaining that "there are other ways to cut costs" besides taking funds out of education and health spending, as conservative governments at the regional level have been doing. He wants to subsidize jobs for young people by increasing taxes on the rich, axing various benefits and imposing a new levy on banks, and he wants to boost funding for the health care system by increasing the sales tax on tobacco and alcohol. What's more, he would like Brussels' help in stimulating the economy. Lastly, the Socialist candidate has also kept the indignados' central demands in mind, promising electoral reforms that would give smaller parties a chance.
Still, it's doubtful whether any of this will help him.
Meanwhile, his opponent has been having a hard time concealing his confidence in his own victory. He has announced that, on November 20 -- which, incidentally, is the 36th anniversary of Franco's death -- the question will be whether "those who have been making everything worse will continue to do so" or whether there's "a light at the end of the tunnel." That light, of course, is Rajoy himself.