By Sarah White and Sonya Dowsett
MADRID The great survivor of Spanish politics, newly re-appointed Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, is hoping to cling to power with the help of a 45-year-old lawyer who has a valuable quality he lacks: she is well liked. Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, Rajoy's troubleshooter and deputy during his first term, is one of his few allies to emerge unscathed from years of austerity measures and unpopular policies that have chipped at relations with opposition parties. Rajoy has handed Saenz de Santamaria an expanded role in his new cabinet where alongside her deputy position she will deal with one of Spain's thorniest issues - an independence campaign by the northeastern Catalonia region. Returned to power with the weakest mandate in Spain's modern history, Rajoy's conservative Popular Party (PP) government will have to extract support from a multitude of rivals to pass laws in a fragmented parliament. Saenz de Santamaria will play a key role in smoothing over hostile relations with other parties. Rajoy has already drawn stinging criticism from the opposition after he reinstated several ministers responsible for some of his most unpopular reforms, including a labour overhaul that made it cheaper to fire staff.Yet Saenz de Santamaria's reputation as a pragmatic operator with a propensity for dialogue has earned her grudging respect amongst the opposition. She was even slated as a replacement for Rajoy when his popularity was sapped by corruption scandals several years ago."There's a good relationship with Soraya...when ministers haven't followed up on something we've been negotiating she would tend to intervene to unblock the situation," said Inaki Anasagasti, a former senator with the Basque National Party (PNV), the biggest force in the northern Spanish region.UPTOWN FUNK
The prime minister has parachuted Saenz de Santamaria in to manage crises as diverse as a homegrown outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in 2014 to the aftermath of a freak Germanwings plane crash in 2015 when the German pilot crashed his jet into the Alps after taking off from Barcelona. She plunged straight into her job as deputy prime minister after a landslide PP victory in late 2011, just weeks after giving birth, as the new government wrestled with a deepening recession and spiralling unemployment. Untainted by a series of corruption scandals that have battered the PP in recent years, the deputy prime minister enjoys better public ratings than most of her party peers. A TV chat show appearance last year where she took part in a a dance choreography to Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk" have honed her image as a politician with a common touch, a useful foil to 61-year-old prime minister's dour style.
At times Saenz de Santamaria's empathetic manner has drawn derision from critics. As government spokeswoman at the height of the euro zone crisis in 2012, she appeared on the verge of tears when announcing spending cuts to health and education in the weekly government press conference. A highly-trained lawyer, a member of the elite squad of Spanish lawyers that defend the state's interests, she confidently batted away tough questions from journalists in the televised news conferences. This role has now been handed to another minister, with Saenz de Santamaria handed the role of mediator between the prime minister's office and parliament as well as the central government and Spain's 17 regions. The autonomous regions are a growing headache for Rajoy, the source of much of the over-spending that has kept Spain from meeting its deficit targets. Leaders in wealthy Catalonia have said they will hold a referendum on breaking away next year.
Some opposition parties and regional forces worry that for all her qualities Saenz de Santamaria will do little more than channel Rajoy's inflexibility on key policies in a more conciliatory tone. Political commentators say she lacks strong backing from many within her own party and enjoys her powerful status thanks to her loyalty to the prime minister. Rajoy has fought pro-independence challenges in Catalonia with blocks in the Constitutional Court in recent years, and his hardline anti-regionalist rhetoric has been criticised for escalating tensions. His new government has promised more dialogue with leaders in Barcelona, though Saenz de Santamaria is unlikely to represent any big change is strategy, Catalan commentators say. "I've always had friendly dealings with her," said Joan Tarda, a lawmaker for Catalonia separatist party the Republican Left, or ERC. "(But) Soraya Saenz de Santamaria has always denied the possibility of a referendum and cannot conceive that national sovereignty, which is sacred to her, could even he called into question." (Additional reporting by Inmaculada Sanz; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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