Aznar, Jose Maria: 1953—: Prime Minister of Spain
Jose Maria Aznar: 1953—: Prime Minister of Spain
Jose Maria Aznar Lopez was born in Madrid, Spain on February 25, 1953 to a middle class family with political ties to General Francisco Franco's ultra-conservative dictatorship. Aznar's father and one of his grandfathers both held posts in the dictator's government. His family also included several notable conservative journalists, one of whom wrote a history of the Spanish Civil War from Franco's very unpopular viewpoint. Thus the Spanish public's perception of Aznar's brand of conservatism as related to the conservatism of Franco was more than just speculation. Aznar attended college at Madrid's Complutense University where he earned a law degree. Following graduation he obtained work as a government tax inspector, a position he held through the death of Franco in 1975 and well into the first wave of the democratization of Spain.
Entered Conservative Politics
Aznar began his political career in the Alianza Popular (Popular Alliance), Spain's leading conservative political party. In 1979 he assumed the position of secretary general of the party's wing in the Logrono region of Spain. In 1982 he was elected Secretary General of the national party. He held this position for five years. Concurrently he served as an elected congressional representative for the region of Castile-Leon, a post he also held for five years. During this time, Aznar became a vocal proponent for a political shift towards the center for the party, which had been renamed Partido Popular (Popular Party). His goal was to distance the right wing party from the politics of Franco. He also pushed the party to appeal to more women and young voters.
The 1980s were a time of massive change culturally and socially for Spain. It was also a time of extreme financial instability. In addition to one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, Spain also lagged under the remnants of the welfare state that had been institutionalized by Franco. Citizens expected to have their needs taken care of by the state despite a financial environment that made this impossible. Aznar promoted conservative fiscal and economic policies to combat these problems.
Assumed National Political Role
Despite a public persona widely described as dull, Aznar moved towards greater political roles. "Aznar has always been considered somewhat colorless and lacking in charisma," noted www.spainview.com. Partido Popular, unfazed by his dourness, elected Aznar as the president of the party. Though Aznar had already done much to revamp the conservative party, steering it free of any lingering Francoist elements, the party failed miserably in the first national elections under Aznar's leadership. The incumbent Socialist party which had assumed control of the presidency and congress did so under the leadership of the charismatic Felipe Gonzalez. Spain, still smiting from Franco's ultra-conservative dictatorship, were not yet ready to elect a conservative prime minister, especially a lackluster taxman whose family included members of Franco's government.
At a Glance . . .
Born February 25, 1953, Madrid, Spain; married to Ana Botella, three children. Education: Law Degree, Complutense University, Madrid. Religion : Catholic.
Career: Politician. Tax inspector, 1970s and 1980s; general secretary, Alianza Popular, Logrono region of Spain, 1979; general secretary, Alianza Popular, 1982-1987; congressional representative, Spanish Parliament, 1982-1987; elected president, Partido Popular, 1991; Prime Minister of Spain, 1996–.
Address: Office —Partido Popular, C/Genova 13, 28004 Madrid, Spain; Residence —Presidential Palace, Moncloa, Madrid, Spain.
Four years later, in 1993, the Socialists won again, however by a much narrower margin. The Partido Popular gained a large portion of congressional seats, just twenty short of a majority. Support for Gonzalez's government had began to erode in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a rash of scandals surfaced. Involving some of the highest members of government and their family members, the scandals—both financial and criminal—were serious enough to force Gonzalez to call for early national elections. Even before the first scandals were made public, Aznar had already begun to vocally promote the need for clean government.
With the support of over 99% of Partido Popular members, Aznar embarked on a vigorous campaign to become prime minister in 1996. Capitalizing on the vulnerability of the ruling party, one of Aznar's campaign tenets was the eradication of corruption in government. He also managed to turn his own subdued personality into a plus by declaring that "Spain has had enough charisma," as quoted in The Economist. The implication was that the time had arrived to get serious and tackle the country's financial and social woes. Who better to do the job than a tax inspector? The voters agreed and in a historic election, Aznar was elected Prime Minister. According to www.cnn.com, "[The election] was only the second time in 60 years that power passed from one elected party to another."
Despite Aznar's victory, the Partido Popular did not gain a majority of congressional seats. Rural voters, government workers, and those old enough to remember the terror of Franco's regime chose to vote for the incumbent Socialists. The idea of a conservative party in power reminded them too much of Franco's dictatorship. However, young voters and women voters, as well as Spain's new burgeoning middle class, were forward thinking in their vote. They chose to vote for the future of Spain, not in fear of the past. They would become Aznar's most important constituents.
Following his election, Aznar began to institute reforms designed to "cut back the bloated government bureaucracy, balance the budget, root out corruption, and crack down on Basque terrorism," according to www.cnn.com. Another goal of the new prime minister was to further Spain's role in the European Union (EU), and specifically, to improve the economy sufficiently enough to meet the European Union's standards for inclusion in the single European monetary system of the Euro. At the time, both Spanish and foreign economists, openly declared that it would be impossible for the Spanish economy to improve enough to qualify for the first round of the Euro in 2001. Aznar didn't listen to the pundits and Spain met the EU standards just two years after his election. The Economist noted, "[Aznar] managed to confound Europe's doubting bankers by getting Spain to ride the first wave of single-currency surfers." What he lacked in personal style and charm, he made up for with economic reform. "He sets about the job with a seriousness and single-mindedness that have suited the moment," The Economist noted.
Steered Spain to Success
During his first four-year term as prime minister, Aznar made many astonishing gains. Unemployment, at an appalling 23% when he entered office, was reduced to 15%—still dismal, but a marked improvement. According to Europe, he did this "by generating 1.8 million jobs, more than were created in the rest of the other European Union nations combined." He also saw Spain's economic growth inch up to an average of 3.5% per year of his term. The previous rate was about 2%. He accomplished these economic leaps while slowly making steps to dismantle Spain's welfare state—a system near to the hearts of Spanish stalwarts. "He has continued to liberalise, while maintaining a remarkable degree of social peace," wrote The Economist. Another change Aznar made was the inclusion of women in some of the highest levels of the government. For a country that barely 30 years ago did not allow women to open their own bank account, Aznar's appointment of four women to his Cabinet is no less than radical. He also continued to court voters too young to remember the days of Franco.
For Spain, a country still self-conscious of its authoritarian past, its Civil War, and its history of economic instability, Aznar's achievements were a much-needed boost for the Spanish ego. An article in The Economist declared, "Spain under Mr. Aznar is riding high. It is a confident, modern-minded country that fights its corner in the European Union with vigour and effectiveness. Politically stable, economically prosperous, it is gaining respect in the world." Aznar also gained respect and in the 2000 elections the Partido Popular enjoyed a landslide, gaining a majority of the congressional seats and assuring Aznar another four years as prime minister. "The Spanish people have generously renewed and widened their confidence in us," Aznar was quoted in Europe, "and the attitude of this government is to be open to dialogue with all political and social forces because everyone wants to see Spain progress."
Tormented by Terrorism
However, Aznar's tenure has not been without problems. The biggest of those being ongoing terrorism by a group of separatists from the Basque region of Spain, near the French border. The group, operating under the acronym ETA, uses bombings and assassinations as the means of obtaining their goal—secession from Spain or at the least regional autonomy. Excluding a 15 month ceasefire, ETA has been very active during Aznar's rule. One week in July of 2000 there were three separate bombings—in the Basque region and in the capital of Madrid. Businessmen, politicians, and military leaders have all been murdered by ETA during Aznar's first term. In 1999, during the ceasefire, Aznar's government opened up talks with ETA's political wing for the first time in ten years. The dialogue ended in a stalemate. The separatists continued to demand a referendum on what they call "self-determination" while Aznar clung unwaveringly to the Spanish constitution, which declares that Spain remain whole.
As Aznar entered his second term, ETA's commitment to terrorism showed no sign of stopping. Aznar refused to commence new dialogues until all violence stopped and has pursued military means to fight the terrorists. Some critics complained that this refusal to negotiate with ETA or their political wing is a mistake. Aznar remained unmoved. Without delving into specifics, Aznar told Larry King during a November 2001 taping of Larry King Live, "I must point out that terrorists will be eradicated. And terrorists will be brought to justice before the courts."
Shortly into Aznar's second term as prime minister, Spain will assume the presidency of the European Union. The high profile position will allow Aznar the chance to further Spain's prominence in the EU and implement changes he sees as necessary for the success of the EU. These include the improvement of the infrastructure of transport between member nations—especially rail and air travel; the opening of energy markets for member countries; the full integration of the EU's various financial markets; free movement of labor, allowing workers greater mobility and support to work in other member nations; and a standardized educational system across the borders. These are lofty goals for the burgeoning Union and in pursuing them Aznar will face stiff opposition from other member states. Yet for the former taxman who—against all odds—brought conservatism and fiscal responsibility back to Spain, they may just be obtainable.
The Economist, February 3, 1996, p44; December 5, 1998, p62; March 11, 2000, p23; August 12, 2000, p45; June 30, 2001, p4.
Europe, May 2000, p22; December 2001, p28.
Eurowatch, April 15, 1996, http://www.csis.oirg/html/euro 1.html
Transcript of Larry King Live interview, November 2001, http://www.spainemb.org/novedades/Aznar/cnnb. htm