MADRID (Reuters) - Confused and anxious Spaniards heaped scorn on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Sunday for portraying a 100 billion euro European rescue of the country’s zombie lenders as a triumph, expressing skepticism about whether the plan will work.
With the economy contracting, one in four workers out of a job, and Greek elections next weekend overshadowing the entire euro zone, Spaniards accepted that Saturday’s announcement of the bank rescue was necessary but many doubted it would solve the problems of Spain or the euro.
Some commentators were willing to give Rajoy the benefit of the doubt as Spain became the fourth euro zone country to seek international aid in the two-and-a-half-year debt crisis.
However, others were less forgiving, while online many Spaniards accused him of cowardice and expressed astonishment that he had gone off to watch Spain play in the European football championships on Sunday.
Rajoy avoided calling the deal agreed by euro zone finance ministers a “rescue” - even though every leading Spanish newspaper called it just that on Sunday - apparently because this would imply the kind of humiliating conditions and surveillance by European officials that Ireland, Greece and Portugal have endured under their bailouts.
Instead he referred only to “what happened yesterday”, saying that the deal to shore up banks hit hard by a burst property bubble and recession had no strings attached and would return credibility to the euro.
“Getting a 100 billion credit line is not such an easy thing to achieve,” Rajoy told a news conference.
Xavier Vidal-Folch, a columnist at the El Pais newspaper, remained skeptical. “People need to know this isn’t free. Rajoy is not Saint George killing the dragon,” he said. However, he told Reuters: “The deal can be very positive if he explains to Spaniards there are still a lot of chores to do.”
Traditional and social media blasted Rajoy for not announcing the rescue himself on Saturday - instead putting his economy minister in the firing line - before getting on a plane to see Spain play Italy in Poland on Sunday.
“Rajoy makes himself out to be the savior of the euro and parades the pressure tactics he used to get us this marvelous gift of a tailor-made rescue,” wrote El Pais editor Lluis Bassets in an online opinion piece on Sunday.
With Spain’s borrowing costs soaring and making it impossible for the government to raise enough money to help the banks itself, Rajoy said he had pressured Europe for the aid - contradicting reports that the euro zone had pressured him into the deal to try to stop the euro zone crisis deepening.
Adding to the wider turmoil, Greece will hold an election on June 17 that could decide its future in the euro, with voters split over that country’s international bailout which has kept the economy afloat at the price of harsh austerity measures.
A series of halfhearted Spanish banking reforms have failed to remove doubts about the financial sector.
Rajoy blamed the previous Socialist government, saying it should have taken more vigorous action on the banks three years ago, when most of euro zone countries bailed out their lenders.
The leaders of Ireland and Portugal did not last long in office after their countries took bailouts, while Greece’s George Papandreou was also eventually forced out after his country’s rescue.
Rajoy’s televised news conference drew derision from incredulous Spaniards who have already paid 18 billion euros in public money to prop up banks after the 2008 property market crash left them with hundreds of billions of euros in bad debt to real-estate developers.
“And who is going to pay the interest on these credit lines (for the banks)?” said Pedro Arranz, a primary school teacher.
The answer was not clear. Rajoy said interest on the euro zone loans would not count toward Spain’s deficit, but Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said a day earlier it would.
Arranz and 30 others in the waiting room at a Madrid hospital jeered Rajoy as he spoke on television, emphasizing measures taken by his government to tackle the banks’ problems since it came to power late last year.
“If we had not done what we’ve done in the past five months, what would have been on the table yesterday would have been an intervention in Spain,” Rajoy told the news conference in a large hall usually reserved for receiving heads of state.
Lourdes Jimenez, a 37-year-old business owner who also watched Rajoy from the hospital waiting room, doubted the deal will free up credit for small firms which have been choked for years as the banks try to recover from the property bust.
“This is all a whitewash. And meanwhile the banks continue to asphyxiate small businesses, buying government bonds instead of lending to us,” Jimenez said. Lending to businesses in Spain has dropped drastically since 2008.
Immediately after de Guindos announced the aid package on Saturday, Twitter exploded with criticism of Rajoy, with #rajoycobarde (rajoycoward) one of the top trending topics in Spain. On Sunday the top trending topic was #PreguntaParaRajoy (questionforRajoy).
“When are they going to rescue the unemployed? And the people evicted by the banks?” tweeted one person. After the construction industry collapsed in 2008, throwing hundreds of thousands out of work, defaults on home mortgages have risen as have court-ordered evictions.
The Socialists, the main opposition party, said on Sunday they doubted the aid would come without hefty conditions and called on Rajoy to appear before parliament to explain the rescue. “The government is trying to make us believe we won the lottery,” Socialist leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said.
Rajoy has been applauded in Europe for steep cost-cutting to bring down the country’s high budget deficit, and for a series of reforms to improve economic competitiveness, such as cutting statutory severance pay.
He said the European credit line was part of his wider plan to put Spain back on track to economic growth and jobs creation.
A lawyer who represents small bank shareholders welcomed the rescue. “It’s positive news, as it will ensure the solidity of the banks ... and recover the confidence of the markets,” said Javier Cremades, of law firm Cremades & Calvo-Sotelo, who is also the secretary general of the Spanish Association of Small Shareholders in Public Companies.
But Rajoy, by saying Spain got better treatment than Greece, Ireland and Portugal, aroused anger in other countries.
“To present this as some better deal for Spain is just not right,” said the Irish deputy finance minister Brian Hayes.
“There will be monitoring by (international institutions). The cost of the money is the same in both cases, and crucially the money will be on the balance sheet of Spain in the same way that it is on the balance sheet of Ireland for our recapitalization,” he said. “There was no great dramatic change.”
Additional reporting by Sarah White in Madrid and Conor Humphries in Dublin; Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Julien Toyer and David Stamp