Spain's Rajoy plays it straight in scandal

Straight-laced and unflinching as he braved street protests and financial chaos last year, Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy now hopes his sedate style can save him from a major corruption scandal.

Long criticised as a bore, Rajoy appeared to have turned dullness into a political strength when he thrashed the Socialists in 2011 elections, casting himself as an austere but safe pair of hands in an economic crisis.

The bespectacled, grey-bearded leader, who speaks with a lisp, has responded to strikes and protests by doggedly repeating that painful sacrifices now will create jobs in the long run.

When the biggest in a series of corruption scandals reached his door this week with allegations that he received secret payments from his party, Rajoy, 57, remained studiously silent for two days before stepping up to deny the allegations, playing up his no-frills image.

"I did not enter politics to make money," he said, citing his previous profession as a land registrar.

"I earned more money in my profession than I do as a politician. I have never boasted about it, and I'm a bit shy about saying so, but you will understand that today I had to," he added.

"For me, money is not the most important thing in life. I did not enter politics seeking applause, nor money, nor to satisfy my vanity."

Educated in a Jesuit school and trained as a lawyer, Rajoy turned to politics at a young age, joining the Popular Alliance, the party founded by sympathisers of former dictator Francisco Franco which later became the Popular Party.

A married father of two from the conservative northwestern region of Galicia, Rajoy has admitted a fondness for cigars, cycling and the Real Madrid Football Club, but politics has been his life.

After working as a land registrar in his early 20s, he was elected a regional official at age 26 and rose to serve in several national ministerial posts.

Becoming a right-hand man of Jose Maria Aznar, who was prime minister from 1996 to 2004, Rajoy served in several ministerial posts and took over as leader of the Popular Party in 2004.

Amid a crisis sparked by the collapse of Spain's construction boom in 2008, voters handed him the premiership in 2011, third time lucky after he lost the previous two elections.

Once in office, under pressure from European authorities to lower Spain's deficit, he launched budget cuts, tax hikes and other measures aimed at saving 150 billion euros ($200 billion) over three years.

Rajoy cast himself as studious, but critics saw him as indecisive. Political scientist Fernando Vallespin described him as "a party man, not a statesman".

Typically cautious, he resisted ceding to speculation that Spain would need to be bailed out by its neighbours as its borrowing costs reached dangerous levels.

He got through 2012 without a bailout thanks to a pledge of support from the European Central Bank, only for the corruption crisis to erupt in the new year.

The daily El Pais published ledgers drawn up by the Popular Party's former treasurer Luis Barcenas purportedly showing that Rajoy had received undeclared payments from 1997 to 2008.

Ironically given Rajoy's background as a land registrar, El Pais said some of the payments came from construction companies.

"I have been working with him for 12 years... and what I have seen in that time has always been exemplary conduct," Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said of Rajoy when questioned about the scandal.

"I have never seen him break the rules."