He was the grandson of Manuel Aznar Zubigaray, a former Basque nationalist turned Franco supporter. Manuel directed several newspapers and worked as a Spanish diplomat. As a teenager, José María was a Falangist.
He studied law, and then became an inspector for the Spanish Tax Authority. He entered Conservative party Alianza Popular ("People's Alliance"). Member of Parliament for La rioja, he was later elected to the presidency of Autonomous Community of Castile-Leon. His success earned him the trust of the Galician party leader Manuel Fraga, who appointed him as new party leader. Aznar conducted the refoundation of AP as Partido Popular ("People's Party"), aiming to the political center, embrasasing economic liberalism without attacking the welfare state.
On April 19, 1995, ETA made an assassination attempt on Aznar. He only survived the attack thanks to his armored car. One women was killed as a result of the blast.
After a strong campaign against the corruption scandals of Felipe González's PSOE and against Felipe González's alleged involvement with the GAL - an illegal anti-terrorist group -, Aznar's PP won the 1996 general election. Short of an absolute majority, Aznar had to reach agreements with other parties. After some negotiations, he became Prime Minister with the support of nationalist parties CiU, PNV and Coalición Canaria.
He moved the PP from the Conservative group in the European Parliament to the Christian-democratic European People's Party. His protegé Alejandro Agag succeeded changing the Demochristian International into the Center Democrat International.
His first term was dominated by the economic agenda. Under his management, Spain's economy has shown considerable strength, growing far above its European counterparts. Unemployment has more than halved (from more than 20% in 1996 to little more than 10% in 2003), inflation is now under control and the government budget is in balance for the first time since the return of democracy. As a result of all these, Spain qualified to join the European currency - the Euro - in 1998, against all odds.
Aznar was re-elected with an absolute majority in 2000 and has declared he will not opt for a third term, fulfilling an electoral promise made before his election in 1996. Mariano Rajoy was elected as the next PP candidate in september 2003 for the elections to be hold in march 2004.
His second term has been more political. Although still orthodox and getting good results, Aznar has somehow stopped his economic reformism (foot-turning on a controversial reform of the labour market). His government has been more interested in securing Spain's position in Europe and the world and in Spain's difficulties in dealing with separatism. Regarding the latter point, Aznar and his party have adopted a firm defense of the current redaction of the Spanish Constitution of 1978 and the rule of law, opposing an unilateral plan for further Basque autonomy presented by Basque president Juan José Ibarretxe.
He has actively supported American president Bush's and the international intervention in Iraq in 2003. In spite of the opposition of a large part of the media and public opinion to that support - his PP party conserved most of the popular support at the May 2003 local elections.
He is a friend of Italian Silvio Berlusconi and Britain's Tony Blair. He is married to Ana Botella with two sons and a daughter, Ana Aznar Botella, married to Alejandro Agag in 2002 in a high-profile wedding at El Escorial.
Derided by his moustache, Aznar was long underestimated by his opponents and touted as a man without charisma. His critics liken his moustache to those of Franco, Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplin. After 8 years in Government, his successful economic management has deepened his image as a quiet, hard-working achiever.