In the shadow of Europe’s financial crisis, Spain will hold national elections next month and choose a new prime minister to help revive the country’s struggling economy. Mariano Rajoy of the opposition Popular Party currently leading in the polls, sat down in Madrid with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth for an interview. Excerpts:

If elected, how would you get Spain’s economy growing, and how would you regain the confidence of the markets?

The main target for the next years should be growth and job creation. For that, we need investment. Investment needs confidence. In my opinion, we need several things: first, a political change; second, a government made by competent and serious people; and third, a four-year plan. . . . The contents of this plan should be in order of importance: First is public deficit reduction. That’s where we really put our credibility at stake. I really guarantee that the public deficit is going to be controlled. . . .

The second priority is to make credit come back. For that, we need a restructuring of our financial system, and those parts that require it should be made healthier.

My third priority in economic reform is taxation. I don’t believe we should right away increase taxation.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has already imposed an austerity program and made some cuts. Would you go beyond his cuts?

Yes, there is no other way out. I am in favor of reducing all budget items. But the item I don’t want to reduce is the pension expenditure because it affects the weakest part of society. And I would not like to reduce rights in health and education — the kind of services any Spaniard is entitled to.

So you would not cut health care and education beyond where they are today?

They are services people are entitled to have. We have to maintain those services.

Do you think Spain’s labor laws need to be reformed to encourage business?

There is one especially important reform, which is labor reform. We need to reform collective bargaining. Collective bargaining should be done inside the company, and wages should adapt to different companies’ realities.

Currently, there is a centralized collective-bargaining system for all companies, and wages are not linked to productivity.

Yes, we have national and regional agreements. In 2009, we had negative economic growth, but wages increased 3 percent. More than 1 million people lost their jobs. The adjustment was made in terms of jobs, not wages. This is something we have to change.

What do you plan to do about the incredibly high unemployment rate here in Spain? How would you create new jobs?

We have to change economic policy: create confidence, foster investment, cut the public deficit, restructure taxation and reform the labor laws.

Who would be your minister of the treasury?

The Spanish constitution says that first I have to tell the king.

Are you critical of Prime Minister Zapatero’s lack of reaction to the 2008 financial crisis?

Zapatero has been in the government since 2004. From 2004 to 2008, he didn’t do anything at all in economic affairs. Spain still was growing. I said two things to him at that time: Public expenditures were excessive, and there was a lack of structural economic reforms. In 2008, Zapatero denied the existence of the crisis and continued doing nothing. Great mistake. In 2009, when everybody started to tell him that Spain was going to have a big problem, he took two decisions: first, to increase public spending, reaching a public deficit of 11 percent of GDP. I really criticized that. Second, he started a very shy, timid reform process. And all that created a lot of uncertainty.

If you do what you need to do to get Spain out of this economic crisis, do you believe these measures will create civil unrest?

I have to do what everyone expects us to do. I think that the vast part of the Spanish society is very conscious that things are not going well, and we all have to make efforts. That’s the reason I am not pessimistic about the reaction of the Spanish people.

So Spain will not be the next Greece?

Not at all.

What are the key differences between
you and your opponent, Mr. Rubalcaba?

The first is that my party, the Popular party, has always managed our economy well, and that is not the case for the Socialist party. Last time we came into power, it was 1996. The unemployment rate at that time was 22 percent. When we left office in 2004, unemployment was under 10 percent, and now it’s back to 21 percent. That is the best summary. The second [difference] is that right now, the Socialist party does not have an economic team to help Spain exit this crisis. Thirdly, our party knows the kind of foreign policy we want to carry out. We are in favor of the euro, and we want more integration with Europe — more political and economic coordination.

What is your view of the recent ETA deal in which they renounced violence? They didn’t apologize to the victims or put down their weapons.

I think this announcement is good news. We can only be really peaceful when there is an effective dissolution of this terrorist band. We must be prudent, and we must remain united and enforce the law. These terrorists are still outlaws.

You have held several significant government positions. What do you think makes you the most qualified person to be prime minister of Spain?

In the government, I have held four different ministries and also been deputy prime minister. I have won two internal elections inside my party.

So your experience qualifies you to become prime minister? You are ready?

Nobody in Spain has my political career. And if I didn’t believe in myself, I couldn’t run for election.

If you don’t win a large majority, will you have to go to smaller parties to form a coalition government? Which party would be the best coalition partner?

I have the experience to govern with a coalition government. In 1996, we needed 20 more seats to reach an absolute majority. We were able to build a coalition with three other political parties, and it worked well.

But now you hope for a big enough majority so you won’t need a coalition partner?

What I really believe is that Spain needs a strong government.

Will you have a problem with the right wing of your party because they perceive you as too moderate?

We have more than 10 million voters. My duty is to act [on behalf of] the majority of the people, and I believe the majority of Spaniards are in favor of moderation and common sense.

When did you opt for a moderate policy?

I believe I have been a moderate politician my whole life. What I did recently was to make an effort to show myself as I am — as a moderate politician.

In economics or in all areas?

In all areas. Moderation is also an attitude and a way of behaving. Now ideological differences are less important.

Because what matters is getting Spain out of this crisis?

Clearly that is the great national target.

How long do you anticipate that will take you?

It is difficult, but it is very important to create enough confidence in the first months in office. That is my target.

Similar to President Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days?

That means to tackle the issues I discussed at the beginning of this interview. The worst thing a government can do now in Spain is to do nothing.