Bush to lose a key European ally

Spanish prime minister won't run again in March

November 09, 2003|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRID, Spain - President Bush is about to lose one of his best friends in Europe.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has decided to step aside as head of the ruling Popular Party and will not run for a third term in March. He will continue as prime minister until then, but he ceded operation of the right-wing party to a hand-picked successor, Mariano Rajoy, in September and is beginning to focus on a future outside of Spanish government.

That positions Rajoy, who serves as deputy premier, as the party's candidate in the coming elections and, if voting patterns continue, the likely next prime minister.

Rajoy is expected to hew generally to Aznar's policies, including his pro-U.S. bent, but he may seek to repair some of Madrid's damaged relations inside Europe. He is seen as a more pragmatic and less confrontational politician and willing to show flexibility where Aznar has not, especially in dealing with the opposition and with the separatist-minded Basque region.

Aznar became a staunch ally of the Bush administration - and alienated most of his own continent - by supporting the U.S.-led war in Iraq when few European governments did. Since the fall of Baghdad, Madrid has sent Spanish troops to Iraq and pledged millions of dollars in reconstruction efforts.

Bush rewarded the Spanish premier with photo opportunities in the Rose Garden and support for Aznar's battle with separatist Basque guerrillas, known by the acronym ETA. The White House eagerly granted Aznar's request to put Batasuna, a political party accused of having ties to ETA, on a terrorist list and to order any of its U.S.-based assets seized.

Aznar, 50, has been widely credited with raising Spain's profile on the global scene. But international relations may not be Rajoy's priority, especially as he seeks to build domestic support, and nudge his party back to the center from Aznar's rightist domain, to win election.

As with many issues, Aznar has confronted the Basque separatists with uncompromising force. A survivor of an ETA bombing two decades ago, Aznar launched a major crackdown on the Basques and those the government perceived to be their allies, including politicians and a newspaper.

Aznar's heavy-handed approach alienated the nationalist, nonviolent party that governs the Basque country, and relations between Madrid and the Basques have deteriorated to a new low point.

"The truth is that Rajoy can probably see [the Basque issue] in a colder, more detached way, whereas Aznar saw it very emotionally, which made him increasingly dogmatic," Markel Olano Arrese, an official with the ruling Basque Nationalist Party, said in an interview in Bilbao.

On the other hand, Olano said, Rajoy may be unwilling to shift his party's position on the Basques in the middle of an election campaign. "The hard line gets votes, and that conditions the discourse," he said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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