The Madrid park where Ana Botella addressed hundreds of fervent supporters one summery afternoon last week was probably chosen for its location in the conservative heart of the city rather than for its name: Eva Peron.
But the choice of venue was symbolic. Because Ms Botella owes her position on the platform not to her political skills or experience but, like the charismatic wife of the former Argentine strongman, to her husband, Jose Maria Aznar, Prime Minister of Spain.
Ms Botella, 49, proudly on the right of the ruling conservative Popular Party, is standing for the number three slot on the party's list for Madrid town hall in next Sunday's local elections.
She is expected to be elected, probably on the winning side of an evenly matched tussle with Socialists. Only then will Spaniards discover if she can build her own base independently from her husband who steps down next year.
A tough, determined figure, she is often compared with Hillary Clinton for her presumed influence on the political ideas of her husband. But Ms Botella is far to the right of the former US president's wife, and has neither held public office nor developed a professional career. She abandoned her job as a civil service lawyer shortly after marrying her husband and devoted the subsequent 29 years to bringing up their three children.
Her listeners in the Eva Peron Park were not descamisados – shirtless ones – but prosperous, mostly elderly Madrileños who have long leaned to the right in that part of the Spanish capital still dubbed "la zona nacionalista" for its Francoist sympathies. The candidate rattled through her prepared speech, touching on all the points guaranteed to win approval.
The Socialists offered nothing, she argued, they threatened only to end "the wave of prosperity that had swept through the city in recent years". She wanted more security on the streets, more care for the elderly, a better quality of life, full employment. The rally concluded with a walkabout in a solidly middle-class neighbourhood. With her trademark radiant smile, she gladhanded old folks, kissed babies and laid a reassuring hand on the shoulder of a neatly dressed Latin American immigrant, who told of the difficulties in finding work.
Amid the mostly adoring crowds, her every step was under the watchful gaze of the candidate for Mayor of Madrid, Alberto Ruiz Gallardon, her companion on the stump. Mr Gallardon makes little secret of his long-term desire to lead the party. Some see his sponsorship of Ana Botella as a political masterstroke that wins Mr Aznar's favour and puts him in line for the succession in 2008, if not 2004.
These municipal elections have assumed a national importance for the PP. They are being seen as a dress rehearsal for general elections next year and an indicator of Spain's likelihood of swinging back to the left. A poll taken on the eve of war with Iraqpredicted big PP losses. Conservatives say support has recovered since the war ended, but the frenzied electioneering of these days indicates fears that even PP strongholds like Madrid are at risk of falling to an alliance of Socialists and Communists.
But if Ms Botella is her husband's secret weapon in the battle to retain control of Madrid, she provokes antagonism as well as plaudits. The other day she was howled down with shouts of "assassin" and "fascist" as she tried to address a gathering of non-governmental organisations. Then she was heckled by homosexuals when she visited a social centre in Madrid's gay quarter.
Mr Aznar, meanwhile, has been jetting around, addressing several meetings a day, as if fighting a general election. He shows no sign of reversing his decision to step down, but has signalled no successor, who must be appointed in the autumn. And his message is increasingly hardline. He warns of a perilous pact among "Communists, Socialists and separatists" if the PP doesn't win.
In previous elections Mr Aznar has appealed successfully to the centre ground. But this time he is defending principles of hardline rightwing conservatism – principles now associated with his wife.
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