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Analysis: Aznar picks successor

By ROLAND FLAMINI, UPI Senior Writer

WASHINGTON, Sept. 1 (UPI) -- With no expected opposition -- and considerable relief -- Spain's ruling conservative Partido Popular this week began the process of approving Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's nominee to succeed him as party leader and -- if the PP wins the next election -- as head of the government.

He is Deputy Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Brey, 48, a loyal Aznar associate for more than a decade. The prime minister formally revealed his choice to the party's executive committee Monday, ending 19 months of rumors and speculation following Aznar's decision not to run himself for a third term. Rajoy's acceptance by the party-at-large later this week is expected after a rubber stamp vote.

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In handing over the leadership of the PP to Rajoy Monday, Aznar promised that he would not interfere. "I'll be gone completely," Aznar said. But the prime minister will continue to head the Madrid government until the general elections in March 2004, leaving Rajoy to manage the election campaign, as he had done in 1996 to end 14 years of Socialist government, and again in 2000.

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Analysts in Madrid maintain that, short of an unforseen disaster, such as a significant number of casualties among Spanish troops in Iraq that would put fresh force into the anti-war opposition, Aznar's conservatives enjoy an edge over their Socialist rivals that could win them a third successive election.

The Popular Party's policies are not likely to shift much under Rajoy, but the analysts do forsee a change in leadership style. Aznar is often confrontational and dogmatic, Rajoy is said to be shrewder, more subtle and conciliatory. Underneath his genial manner, however, the bearded politician can be hard to read, said one Madrid political source in a telephone conversation. "If you meet him on the stairs you never know if he's going up or going down," the source remarked.

One view, for example, was that Rajoy would try to establish a level of political understanding with the Basques. On the eve of last May's Spanish regional elections, the Aznar government introduced legislation outlawing the Basque party Batasunia because of its alleged ties to ETA, the Basque separatist terror organization. Thousands of Basque voters who had previously elected Batasunia mayors and local officials felt that they had been disenfranchised by the new law.

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The legislation, the analysts said, was typical of Aznar at his most confrontational. But left to his own devices Rajoy -- who incidentally, raised no public objection to the law at the time -- would have found a more politically subtle way to isolate Batasunia.

Rajoy is also likely to tone down the belligerent rhetoric Aznar has habitually used against the Socialist opposition, according to another source.

With Aznar's departure, President George Bush will be losing one of his two closest European allies in the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein. The Spanish prime minister's support, despite vehement opposition at home, has been second only to that of Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. Aznar has had a succession of meetings with Bush in Washington and at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, and the White House says a bond has developed between him and Bush.

Though protesters in the streets clashed with police, Spain was the first country in the alliance to commit troops to post-war Iraq. The Spanish government is also said to have used its influence to convince the Central American republics of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras to contribute military contingents to the coalition's military presence in "post-war" Iraq. Spain also joined with Poland to form a large force that would ultimately reach 5,000 for deployment in central Iraq.

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Rajoy, on the other hand, will be a relatively unknown quantity in Washington, according to diplomatic sources. He speaks no English (Aznar speaks some), and has had relatively little contact with the Bush administration. But in his favor there is the fact that he was Aznar's point man in arguing the government's case for supporting the Iraq war at home. He also gets credit for some outstanding work in rounding up international terrorists in Spain when he was interior minister.

Meanwhile, the main loser in the small group of possible Aznar successors has to be Rodrigo Rato, second deputy prime minister and minister of economics, according to Spanish media. Though Aznar never commented on the relative merits of the candidates, Rato was once thought to be the front-runner mainly because he had been successful in managing the Spanish economy in difficult times.

Ironically for a politician who attended a U.S. college, was known in Washington, and was comfortable speaking English, one of the counts against him had strong American links. He had failed to rally to Aznar's support on the Iraq war.

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