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 elections in March. He will continue as prime minister until then, but he already has ceded operation of the right-wing party to a handpicked successor, Mariano Rajoy, and he is beginning to focus on a future outside Spanish government.
That positions Rajoy, who serves as deputy premier, as the party's candidate in the upcoming elections and, if current voting patterns continue, probably the 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 in Europe. He is seen as a more pragmatic and less confrontational politician who is more willing to show flexibility than Aznar, 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 Washington's war in Iraq when few European governments were so inclined. Along with Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, he ignored the overwhelmingly antiwar sentiment of his nation and campaigned on behalf of the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Since the fall of Baghdad, Madrid has sent 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 the Basque separatist group ETA. The White House eagerly granted Aznar's request to put Herri Batasuna, a political party accused of having ties to the illegal extremist ETA, on a terrorist list and to order its U.S.-based assets seized.
If Rajoy and the Popular Party win the next election, the extent to which he will continue Aznar's policies also depends on the size of the victory. Under Aznar, who was first elected in 1996, the ruling party did not gain an absolute majority until its second win, in 2000. That freed Aznar to pursue his own agenda less encumbered by public opinion.
Spaniards rejected the war in Iraq by a vast majority, and the assassination of a Spanish diplomat outside his Baghdad home last month gave opposition politicians plenty of fodder for criticism of Aznar. Since then, Spain has pulled out most of its delegation, but antiwar sentiment has not translated into numbers at the voting booths, in part because of Spain's relatively robust economy and the failure of the left to mount an attractive or effective campaign.
An initial good sign for the Popular Party came with an electoral win Oct. 26. The conservatives regained control of Madrid's regional legislature, which they had lost to a Socialist-led coalition months earlier.
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 Basques with uncompromising force. Aznar, who survived an ETA bombing eight years ago, launched a crackdown on guerrillas 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.
"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.
Some Spaniards, including a number within Aznar's party, believe the cost of their prime minister's relationship with Bush has been too high: a loss of influence in Europe without much to show in national, strategic or economic benefit. Spain is deep in delicate negotiations with its European neighbors over its power within the European Union, and some worry that Madrid's bargaining position has been undermined by Aznar's eagerness to curry favor with the White House.
"People in the party are starting to wonder, what did Spain actually get?" said Joaquin Roy, a Spanish analyst who heads the European Union Center at the University of Miami. "Some people don't feel Spain's only alliance should be with the United States. The future is with Europe."
Rajoy is not seen as particularly charismatic -- but neither is Aznar. Even Aznar's critics praise him for stepping down voluntarily and with grace. He had set a term limit for himself when first elected, but no one in this country, where people tend to hang on to power as long as they can, expected him to make good on the promise.
Aside from directing a think tank, Aznar has not specified what he will do next, but he has extolled the importance of improving commercial ties with Latin America and the United States.
And he recently hinted that he would be willing to campaign among U.S. Latinos on behalf of the reelection of his good friend, George W. Bush.