- - Wednesday, December 21, 2011

MADRID Conservative leader Mariano Rajoy assumed office as Spain’s new prime minister Wednesday, vowing to close a huge budget deficit at home and restore his country’s credibility abroad.

Opting to swear - rather than affirm - his allegiance to King Juan Carlos and the constitution, Mr. Rajoy set a tone markedly different from that of his predecessor, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who favored a more secular Spain as part of his socialist policies.

The new prime minister announced budget cuts of $21.5 billion, without offering details, in an effort to prevent Spain from following in the footsteps of fellow eurozone nations Greece and Italy, which are teetering on the brink of financial disaster.

“We face enormous difficulties,” Mr. Rajoy said. “Demanding efforts await us.”

Meanwhile, he avoided the hot-button issue of gay marriage, though he has said in the past that he will defer to Spain’s highest court, which is to rule on its constitutionality.

In last month’s election, Mr. Rajoy’s Popular Party won a landslide victory over Mr. Zapatero’s Socialists, whose seven years in power were marked by Spain’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq and legalization of gay marriage in a largely Catholic country.

But it was the worsening economic crisis - more than one in five Spaniards is unemployed - that propelled Mr. Rajoy into office and that was the focus of his address to Congress on Monday.

In his Monday address, Mr. Rajoy dedicated only a few lines to foreign policy, but observers expect him to adopt a course similar to that of his friend and mentor Jose Maria Aznar, who as prime minister forged close ties to the United States.

With former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr. Aznar was one of only a few European leaders who supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Mr. Rajoy served as a first deputy prime minister in Mr. Aznar’s Cabinet and was supposed to succeed him.

But popular opposition to the Iraq War, along with what was viewed as the government’s botched reaction to the 2004 terrorist attack on commuter trains in Madrid, led to Mr. Zapatero’s victory over Mr. Rajoy in that year’s election.

Damaged at the outset, Spain’s relations with the U.S. only marginally improved during Mr. Zapatero’s reign, said Cristina Manzano of the Foundation for International Relations and External Dialogue, a Madrid-based think tank.

Mr. Rajoy is determined to change that, she said, not the least because the U.S. is an important market for Spanish companies and thus plays a role in its economic recovery.

The new prime minister’s pick for foreign minister - Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, a Harvard-educated member of the European Parliament - however, holds few clues, Ms. Manzano said.

“He is a great unknown for the United States, but also for Spain,” she said.

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