Category Archives: politics

Sortu and the Future of Basque Politics

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According to El País, enough evidence has been found that the rejection of terrorism by Sortu, the new political platform of the leftwing abertzale, is simply empty rhetoric for the organisation to be illegalised.

In fact, all of the evidence since the announcement of the formation of Sortu has pointed to its seemingly inevitable legalisation. It was condemned by both the PSOE and the PP, and its webpage suspiciously disappeared from the internet.

El País has helpfully published the statutes of Sortu. A quick glance through reveals that there are repeated rejections of violence and links with ETA, as well as the recognition that democratic participation is the only way forward. What more do the other political parties want? Whether rhetoric or not, there is a definite attempt to at least portray that they distancing themselves from the terrorist organisation.

Sortu has been hysterically accused repeatedly of being the new incarnation of Batasuna, when (as a few commentators have pointed out) this is completely inevitable. Of course there will be links between the two, but what is more important is working out the difference between the two. Wouldn’t it be better to watch Sortu closely and make sure it follows Spanish law? That would help to distance it from ETA and erode the terrorists’ support.

A simple ‘no’ to any political organisation created by the abertzale runs the risk of making the other political groups appear afraid of losing their electorate and therefore potentially acting undemocratically.

Far more important than short-term party interests is how this will affect the future development of politics in the Basque Country and in Spain more widely. Only time will tell if denying all political participation in this way will hasten or impede the end of ETA.

Spain’s Economic Panacea (or not)

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Unsurprisingly, the talks between the government, business and trade unions ended early last Thursday morning without an agreement about labour market reform. Instead, Zapatero is going to issue it by decree.

For months now, murmurs of cutting the cost of firing people has been on the agenda of many newspapers and the murmurs swelled to a huge clamour during those negotiations. Making it cheaper to fire people is the great panacea for Spain’s economic problems now that the deficit is being tackled by government cost-cutting. Or so it would seem. Such a measure defies all sensible logic. Nearly everyone agrees that Spain’s main economic problem is the astronomical unemployment rate, which is at double the EU average, and that it is going to take a long time to create jobs for those 4 million people. How is making it cheaper to fire people going to help? If you look at how the unemployment has risen during the crisis, it becomes clear that the cost of firing people has not been a problem for many Spanish businesses.

The problem for many young people is that they struggle to get more than a temporary contract, unless they sit the examinations for a post in the public administration. They drift from job to job without much hope for their long term future and this undoubtedly fuels the other spectre which haunts the Spanish economy: productivity. If you’re given a temporary contract for a few months and not much hope of being rewarded for your work (this goes for the graduate contracts too –it’s easier for the businesses to continuously search for fresh meat than offer someone a long term contract), are you really going to be the most productive worker? Unfortunately Spanish businesses seem to think that precarious, temporary job contracts are better than offering someone a long term deal. It lines their pockets in the short term, but is detrimental to their long term growth.

So instead of talking about cheapening the process of firing people, let’s talk about making it easier to contract people, and penalising businesses for their overuse of temporary contracts (which the business representatives rejected during negotiations.) We can only wait and see whether this will be written into the decree on labour reform.

For more about young people and the economy, click here.

Cuts and Cars

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The topic of cuts and savings at state level continues to rumble on. Zapatero managed to pass his ‘Big Scissor Plan’ by 169 votes to 168. But the future doesn’t look that bright for him with respect to the prospect of passing next year’s state budget.

El País published this interesting diagram about the size of the public administration along with an article in passionate defence of the civil service and public sector. Between them, they make the Spanish civil service not seem as giant and unwieldy as we have been led to believe. What neither of them do is explain how they did the sums, which is something I’d be interested to read about, given that teachers and doctors in the UK don’t count as civil servants, unlike Spain. The subtle point within the article is that Spain is normal and in no way different to other European states. It sits quite happily in the middle of the civil service league table.

In other related news, it’s pleasing to hear that Aguirre and Gallardón have at last got the scissors out. They’ve both cut down on their fleets of official cars: from 125 to 77 and 167 to 57 respectively. This should be one of the issues when the eyes of the nation are fixed on the public purse. Why on earth do Gallardón and Aguirre need so many cars? How can provincial mayors be paid more than the Prime Minister? I don’t doubt, as the article emphasises, that there are many ‘thousandamonthers’ who work in the town and city halls, but they are small fry. The big fish are still out there and unfortunately, due to the structure of the Spanish state, they continue to work like provincial barons, lording around the areas that they govern, deluding themselves into thinking they are lord and king of everything they see. What are 167 cars (including two armoured ones) if not a modern day armada, a small and loyal army to call upon whenever the baron feels fit?

As a brief comparison, last summer I worked behind the scenes at Birmingham city hall: how many official cars were the in the car park? Four.

Simplicity or Complexity: The Supporters and Critics of Garzón

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It’s been a while since I talked about Garzón and given that he continues to occupy large swathes of  newspaper print, I think it’s a good time to have a look at what’s happening at the moment.

Last Friday Garzón was suspended from office after the legal process was accelerated to lightning speed, or that’s how it seemed at least to everyone in Spain who has experienced the usual pace of bureaucracy and legal procedures in this country.

Garzón’s application for a transfer to The Hague to work as an assessor to the International Criminal Court was granted on Tuesday of this week. Unsurprisingly he has been accused of trying to escape from the investigation brought against him by the Falange and Manos Limpias (in addition to the other two enquiries, about Banco Santander and Gürtel scandal.) Given Garzón’s interest for pursuing high-profile international crimes, moving to The Hague is undoubtedly a good career move, especially when the atmosphere in Spain does not appear to be very conducive to such investigations. The transfer is, above all, a promotion.

I admit that I’m no expert in judicial matters, but it appears that no one is clear what is going to happen next in terms of the investigation. The whole investigation has been characterised by the very fact that it has been very uncharacteristic in terms of judicial procedure:

  • Garzón is being investigated for the crime of prevarication, after declaring himself competent to investigate crimes against humanity under Franco. Yet very soon afterwards he did a complete u-turn and closed the investigation.
  • Certain processes have been speeded up or slowed down according to, or so it appears, Varela’s whims.
  • Since 1997 Manos Limpias has brought 17 official complaints against Garzón but they were all dismissed until 2009.
  • The CGPC declared that five separate certificates would be needed to authorise Garzón’s transfer to The Hague. This was thrown out by Gómez Begresista for not being based on any legal grounds.

The debate about the crime of prevarication (I’m not going to enter into the legal debate around the Gürtel scandal or Banco Santander) has crystallised and can be categorised more or less neatly into two different camps, which unsurprisingly occupy the left and right of the political spectrum.

Those on the right believe that is not a political case, that Garzón is not being hunted down and that, above all, this is a clear, straightforward point of law. Did Garzón overstep the line? That’s all they ask. Yes or no? It’s an attempt to isolate the politics and the support for Garzón and to try and simplify the investigation as much as possible, neatly ignoring contradictions and conflicts of interest.

Those who support Garzón, on the other hand, see the investigation as a complex process replete with irregularities and uncharacteristic practices. For them, it’s a murky world full of conflicts of interest, egos and reputations, in which interpretation is key. Let’s not forget that Garzón, when deciding whether he could declare himself capable of investigating the Francoist crimes, was supported by other members of the Spanish Criminal Court (Audiencia Nacional.) Supporters and critics of Garzón cite the Amnesty Law, the Constitution and international law in order to defend their respective points of view. Rather than an overly simple yes or no, this case is about the interpretation of law: what it means and how it can be applied.

Whatever happens over the coming days, weeks and months, I’m sure that we’ll see more of this dialectic pattern of arguments in favour and against Garzón. Is it a simple case of right or wrong, yes or no, or a complicated mixture of different interests and readings of law? It’s clear that the Garzón case is a matter of interpretation in more than one sense, so I’ll leave it to you to decide.

*As a footnote to this entry, and as an extension of the simplicity-complexity dialectic, it’s worth considering the Gürtel scandal. The Popular Party are trying to paint it as a simple case in which a few people took advantage of the party to make pots of money. The critics, on the other hand, see it as far more complicated, with deep roots within the party and effects on the decisions and behaviour of the Popular Party.

Scissors and Suits

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The Popular Party should have been delighted yesterday. Zapatero announced a drastic and severe plan to cut the national deficit in a bold and unexpected move, given that he has always rejected such action.

The measures are a combination of spending and salary cuts, mixed with the freezing of pensions that have been dubbed the ‘tijeretazo’ or ‘Giant Scissor Plan.’ The main victims are going to be the civil servants and public sector workers who are going to see their wages fall on average by 5% and frozen in 2011, along with the pensioners whose state pension will also be frozen at its current level. The cheques for each new baby will be shelved and general spending cuts in the public administration are planned, all of which will attempt to find €15 billion. Given the size of the civil service and public sector, which is around 20-25% of the active population, this is going to affect most families across Spain and the two main unions UGT and CC.OO. are already talking about strikes.

Why now? It’s clear that this is a knee-jerk reaction in response to the EU talks last weekend and the attacks on the Euro. Spain’s international economic credibility is low and Zapatero was left with no choice except to try and do everything possible to placate the shadowy gods of speculation.*

The problem is that these measures won’t address the fundamental issues at the heart of the civil service (its lack of productivity and the fact that it is too top-heavy) and the people consider it unfair for them to pay for a recession created by speculation and the construction bubble.

As for the leader of the opposition, he enjoyed his moment of severe criticism of the measures in the Spanish parliament yesterday. Rajoy continued to promote his delusional plan to save the Spanish economy through destroying the Ministry of Equality and eliminating the Third Deputy Prime Minister of the government. The Popular Party will only have the authority to criticise the government’s economic strategy when they apply their own philosophy to the public expenditure in their own Autonomous Communities. Practise what you preach.

Rajoy should have enjoyed the fact that the news story which was expected to make all of the headlines was pushed lower down the list because of the drastic economic adjustment plan. That particular news story was the reopening of the corruption case against Camps, the President of the Community of Valencia, for his acceptance of three suits. This is bad news for Camps. He, and the PP in general, had hoped that this particular case would be swept under the carpet so that they could continue to portray the Gürtel scandal as simply a few people and businesses who have taken advantage of the party. Camps is still at the heart of the scandal and despite his cries of innocence, there is evidence of the illegal financing of the Valencian PP.

Rajoy, nevertheless, continues to say that Camps is definitely the PP’s candidate for the regional elections this year. It’s a breathtakingly hypocritical move that they themselves are now putting pressure on the judicial system, given how the PP protested so vehemently against the demonstrations in support of Garzón.

An interesting day, all in all, between scandals and drastic measures. The PP should have been delighted that Zapatero managed to steal the headlines from Camps and he did it through announcing spending cuts that the PP has been demanding for months and months. The PP should have been clapping themselves on the back, but instead they launched a ferocious attack on the measures and the negative effects they will have on Spanish families, in a completely illogical u-turn. Or maybe not. In Spanish politics it’s not what your stance on certain issues is, it’s how you differ from your political opponents. The PP will never applaud any measure adopted by the PSOE even if they agree with it. Criticise for the sake of criticising, oppose whatever your opponent says, that’s Spanish political tactics.

*It’s interesting to note that whilst I write this the shadowy gods have rained benedictions down on the Spanish economy thanks to the severe measures. Spain has been graced with the rising of the international markets. The citizens will pay for the recession. Amen.

Elections and Two Doses of Irony

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I’m pleased to have been interviewed about the current political situation and that it’s been published in black and white, but who’d have thought? The thing is, it’s about my reflections on the political situation in Britain, not in Spain. The article’s here.

Many have spoken about Cleggmania and the way in which his support seemed to dissipate on Election Day. Nevertheless, there is a great irony in the Liberal Democrats’ failure at the elections: they lost seats whilst gaining a few more votes than in 2005, but not as many as it had appeared during the campaign, yet, at the same time, they have gained an extraordinary amount of influence with regard to the formation of the next government. Clegg is the kingmaker. His decision to form or not form a coalition with Labour or, and seemingly more likely at the moment, the Conservatives, will determine the political landscape of the United Kingdom for this legislature. Failure and victory at the same time.

In my opinion, any deal that the Liberal Democrats make must, as an absolute priority, include electoral reform. This is the first election in which the Liberal Democrats have such power; they are dangling the keys to number 10 in front of Cameron and Brown. It would be suicidal to not force political reform which would guarantee their influence in future legislatures. Will they get it? I’m not sure the all-party commission proposed by Cameron is enough, but what I am sure of, is that there’s plenty of hard bargaining going on behind closed doors.

The Gürtel scandal: The missing debate

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Whilst the newspapers debate whether the Popular Party has taken advantage of the corruption money at the heart of the Gürtel scandal* (for those looking for a quick guide to the scandal please see the bottom of this post) or rather several members of the party have in fact taken advantage of the party itself to make money, there is another more pressing issue about which nothing has been said or written. It’s about the way in which contracts are agreed with private companies and the lack of transparency inherent within this part of the political system.

In these cases of corruption (see the Matas case as well) the Popular Party swings between a policy of inactive denial and political counterattack against the Socialist Party by making claims about falsified evidence or dredging up examples of corruption in the Socialist Party from the past. The government, on the other hand, tries to make stern comments about honour and keeping promises about anti-corruption policies whilst trying not to gain political leverage from the scandal by being strongly critical.

The scandal will not have an important, lasting and direct effect on politics. The voters are apathetic and uninterested; in their eyes both sets of politicians are as bad as each other. The respective cohorts of each party accept the bad behaviour of their leaders because their hate of the other party is a lot stronger than their reaction against corruption. In other words, the Gürtel scandal will not affect the stance of the voters.

What the Gürtel scandal should call into question is the way in which the regional governments work. The current system is opaque. Contracts are signed and money passed under the table without any kind of third party critique or review of the process. Presently, there are too many interests at work that are self-protecting and protected by the upper strata of society, to the detriment of the majority of the population. Costs are inflated, there are delays, and yet no questions are asked. Basically, the system is too easy to manipulate and the use of illegal methods of payment is too easily accepted by business and the public at large. How can it be that Correa can go ten years without declaring anything to the tax office? How can Camps declare his worldly goods to be half of a flat, an old car and 2,000€? We all know that it’s not true. In essence the money has been stolen from public funds and stuck in private bank accounts abroad, from which it is impossible to retrieve it. This is why the judge ordered a €200m bail charge, in an attempt to recover these funds.

The Gürtel scandal is yet another in the long list of deplorable diseases of corruption that Spain seems to suffer. It demonstrates how the oligarchic political class continues to look after its own interests using public tax money. Whilst the politicians squabble about points of law, political advantage etc, they continue to sit at the top of a system that serves their interests and not those of the people. Surely we have a right to know where our money goes? We need a full review of the system of agreements with private companies and whether we citizens are getting value for money, or simply lining the pockets of the political class.

*The Gürtel scandal in less than 270 words:

What is it?

A network of private businesses headed by Francisco Correa (supported by associates such as the sinisterly named ‘Mr Moustache’), such as Orange Market and Easy Concept, that received contracts for organising events from local and regional governments in Valencia, Madrid and Galicia. Members of these governments received expensive gifts from Correa’s company in exchange for the contracts. There is evidence of money being paid ‘under the table’ (known as black money in Spain) to avoid paying tax. The money was moved between businesses and was laundered in foreign companies and bank accounts. Correa has not declared any income to the tax office since 1999.

What has been the fallout?

Several members of the Popular Party have been suspended or forced to resign, such as three members of the Madrid Assembly and the number two of the PP in Valencia, Ricardo Costa. Luis Bárcenas, (ex-)treasurer of the PP, is currently being investigated. The reaction of the PP has been disjointed and improvised to say the least. Camps (President of the Community of Valencia) has avoided appearing in the Valencian regional assembly, Rajoy (leader of the PP) has not really commented, some members of the PP have hinted at ‘invented’ evidence and Aguirre (President of the Community of Madrid) claimed she uncovered the scandal before going back on her remarks the following day. On 6th April 2010 the 50,000 page judicial summary of the evidence was released. The scandal continues to rumble on and will continue to do so for some time yet.

And finally, why is it called the Gürtel scandal?

Gürtel is the German translation of the Spanish surname Correa (which means leash), although it can also be translated as belt.

Here’s an excellent account of the scandal.