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.

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The Economy II: The ‘Thousandamonthers’

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One of the recent media phenomena in Spain has been the extension of the idea of the ‘mileurista’, or ‘thousandamonther’, someone whose monthly income struggles to breach €1000. The term has become a byword for long term employment insecurity, lack of prospects and advancement and, perhaps most crucially, well-qualified graduates in their twenties and thirties who have a job which is well beneath their actual skills and capabilities. The thousandamonther lives at home until he or she is in their thirties and can finally move out, or else moves abroad to find work in line with their qualifications.

This phenomenon is not a minor issue. According to Europa Press, nearly sixty per cent of salaried workers in Spain fit into this category. Obviously it is a huge problem for Spain and young people, who are beginning to feel that going to university will not guarantee them a good job. Currently, you either do the civil service exams (which goes for most public sector posts, including teaching) which offer a relatively well-paid job for life with protection virtually unheard of in the private sector, or you’re stuck as a thousandamonther for a least the foreseeable future: an engineer fluent in German working in Zara, for instance. Some escape abroad and, upon finding better working conditions, encourage others to follow them, which is also a depressing problem for Spain, but a problem which is never highlighted in the press. With so much focussed on immigration, nobody seems to note that Spain’s long tradition of being a country of emigration continues but in a new and worrying way. Rather than those who would leave at the beginning of the twentieth century to make their money in America and return to invest it in Spain (like how El Corte Inglés started) or those workers who left during the dictatorship for economic or political reasons, it is the well-qualified graduates who are leaving, a problem denominated ‘brain drain’ and which is usually associated with developing countries. It is these minds that Spain needs to move out of the recession and become an innovative and globally competitive country.

Another interesting dimension of the ‘thousandamonther’ phenomenon that merits further discussion is the culture of staying at home until you’re thirty. Personally, I am a ‘thousandamonther’ and if I lived at home with my parents, I would have a large disposable income. In other words, the figure of €1000 is an interesting one. It makes it difficult for a person to move out on their own into accommodation, yet at the same time they have a relatively large amount of money to spend each month. And in the modern world of consumerism, globalisation and advertising, this money is spent. Thus, a thousandamonther can experience a relatively good standard of living whilst he or she lives at home (for example multiple foreign holidays due to the explosion of cheap flights) but this is intrinsically linked to living at home with the resulting lack of independence and depressingly, at the same time, the €1000 barrier means that once the person leaves home, it will be difficult for them to maintain such a standard of living. €1000 means more than just a low wage, it means dependence on the previous generations.

Let’s move on to a slightly different but nevertheless closely related issue. Why is there so much job insecurity? Firing someone in Spain who has an indefinite contract is not cheap, so the usual practise nowadays is the use of temporary contracts, including the graduate contracts, which mean that graduates can be employed at 60-75% of the price of a ‘normal’ person for the same job. This is great for the top dogs and fat cats at the top of the pile, but a disaster for everyone else. There are complaints about the lack of productivity in Spain; perhaps if businesses were encouraged to hold onto their staff for longer, expertise would grow and the whole economy would benefit. Instead, people drift from temporary contract to temporary contract, hoping for the perfect job which will give them long term stability and security, as well as the ‘nómina’, the regular salary paid directly into a bank account, essential for buying a house and even opening certain basic bank accounts. This is why the dream of so many people is to work for the state.

The Spanish economy suffers from many problems, of which the ‘thousandamonther’ issue and the contracts are just two. With the rate of unemployment running at nearly 20%, posts need to be created as fast as possible. But that should not mean the reduction of workers’ rights again. Commentators and politicians recall those heady early Aznar years during which unemployment dropped sharply. They would do well to also remember that in that period the relative acquisition power of the Spanish worker dropped whilst temporary contracts increased. It was a myth of development, propelled by a property bubble which only benefited a few, whereas the reform is required now has to address the needs of many: the four million unemployed and the 25% of employed, but who remain in temporary employment.

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.

Garzón: a question of law or simply blackmail?

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The case against Garzón took another twist this morning with the publication of this article in El País detailing rumours of a deal being indirectly offered to Garzón: resign and we won’t prosecute you.

Now it’s clear that there deals are common when it comes to legal cases: denounce your fellow criminals, plead not guilty, admit guilt, in order to get off lightly. This is no innocent world where everyone pays for their actions; there is a certain amount of horsetrading that goes on. Nevertheless, in this case it is a truly breathtaking development. Resign, and we’ll drop the case. Whatever happened to applying the letter of the law? It’s now obvious that removing Garzón from the Audiencia Nacional is the most important thing; not the crime he is accused of having committed.

Blackmail. The only option they are giving Garzón is to leave the Audiencia Nacional. That’s the only thing that matters for his enemies: remove him from power. This isn’t about a point of law or questions of competency, it’s a strategic move to destroy one person’s career.

When the Garzón fiasco started, it was obvious that the Spanish judicial system is politicised. With this latest development, it’s obvious that the practise of law itself is more politics than we perhaps normally believe.

Garzón in the dock? A turning point in Spanish democracy

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The foundation stone of the current democratic system is the Amnesty Law of 1977, a law which allowed a system to be built by concentrating on the future and trying to ignore the past. However this Amnesty law is outdated and is now creating the main sticking point with regards to the case against Garzón who is said to have not respected this law. Nevertheless it is the Amnesty Law which is preventing the true expression of democracy, freedom and human dignity and rights.

Despite what some might say, this isn’t about Garzón believing himself to be above the law. This is about finding out the truth about the past and whether or not war crimes were committed. His aggressive pushing at the boundaries of the law was applauded when it involved terrorism but now he has crossed an invisible line.

As always with law, the interpretation of individual laws is extremely important. According to the Supreme Court, Garzón has overstepped his responsibilities by declaring himself capable of pursuing the cause against crimes committed during the dictatorship. The issue is that the Amnesty Law is incompatible with both international law and the Spanish constitution (article 10.2). Is international law more important than national law? The Spanish judiciary were certainly delighted with Garzón’s pursuit of Pinochet and other international crimes. What has changed? Nothing, except the crimes being investigated happened in Spain. It’s clear that when the law is so contradictory that prevarication can be both argued and dismissed. Consequently, in essence this case is purely a political issue.

The Amnesty Law has already been criticised by the U.N. for its infringement of human rights. Such laws are useful for starting a new regime, but are not compatible with the long term development of a democracy (this is the experience of several countries in South America). What we have is an important foundation stone of the current regime which is incompatible with the development of the Spanish democracy. Something has got to give. Will it be the Amnesty Law, or will it be the democracy? What is certain is that this is a defining moment in the future course of history, memory and justice in Spain.

You, you and me

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‘Between us, we can sort it out’ is my translation of the publicity campaign ‘Esto lo arreglamos entre todos,’ an attempt to haul the staggering Spanish economy out of the recession and place it firmly on the road to recovery through positive thinking and actions at grassroots level. Basically, if we all do our bit, Spain will recover, as nothing can resist the power of the people.

The first thing I thought when I heard about this viral publicity campaign was, can we really change this situation on a microeconomic level, from the bottom upwards? It sounds wonderful and empowering, but even if we all do our bit, will it actually work? I couldn’t help but recall the VAT decrease in the UK during 2009 from 17.5% to 15%, which was a government idea to stimulating consumer spending. It wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t the magic potion which revived the economy. In fact, in my experience, it did more at the end of 2009 when people realised that prices were going to increase (I remember a study in which the authors said that when prices fall people don’t buy, instead they wait for them to fall further –consequently the knowledge of a price increase is a bigger incentive.) In contrast, the tax on bankers’ bonuses was a bigger success than expected.

Secondly, the campaign has turned into something of a scandal as apparently the organisation behind the campaign is funded by big business, and apparently receives funds from the treasury, although I have found no concrete evidence about this.If you read the campaign website it sounds idyllically independent, an operation dreamed up by a husband and wife team. What better advert for the campaign than an everyday couple trying to change the world by themselves? Suddenly, when you understand the  backing, it becomes a cynical attempt to try and shift the responsibility for repairing the economic damage to the people. Trying to do it secretly, in this bottom-up independent way, is an absolutely appalling thing to do.

You and you and I. We’re going to save the Spanish economy. Is it really our responsibility? Is it our fault? This campaign is an implicit indictment of the system (both political and economic) and it’s inability, or rather unwillingness, to propel Spain out of the recession. What can the everyday person do if the banks refuse to give credit? What is needed is decisive action from the government to restructure the economy, stimulate employment and create a fairer system for all (I suggest starting with a crackdown on corruption.) I work in a local language academy. If unemployment is the key problem in the Spanish economy what can I do to solve the problem? I don’t provide posts for other people to work. I spend my money and do my bit but what is needed is more than just thinking positively; there needs to be decisive action by both the government and big business. The everyday person on the street is being asked to solve a problem not of their making. Does that mean if we don’t come out of the recession quickly it will be the fault of the people for not thinking positively enough?

‘La crisis que la paguen los ricos’ screams the graffiti around Oviedo, but it seems that every man and woman on the street is being forced to accept responsibility for the problems and to haul the country out of this mess. I’m sorry but this can only ‘be sorted out’ by a few, and unfortunately they don’t want to.

Listening to the Ghost

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I remember watching a programme about double jeopardy in Britain. A man was taken to court for the brutal rape of an elderly woman: she suffered numerous injuries and was left locked under the stairs for several days before she was rescued. The offender was freed without charge because of a legal issue: the DNA evidence that implicated the rapist had been traced through a DNA database and the man’s DNA sample (from a different offence) had been kept for longer than the legal maximum. The evidence was therefore invalid and the rapist was free to roam the streets (he couldn’t be retried with new evidence because of the double jeopardy law.)

I understand that the rule of law is paramount in society and that it must be respected in every case. However, it should not be possible for evidence that clearly demonstrates infringements of the law to be invalidated and thrown out of court because of the way in which they were obtained. I don’t want a CCTV society. I believe in freedom and civil liberties. But when corrupt politicians are conspiring against citizens and the judicial system in the Gürtel scandal, I think there should be an exception to the law. The use of this evidence is in the country’s interest. It’s completely legal to annul the use of the recordings, but that doesn’t make it right. Should the readily manipulated intricacies of law be above morality and ethics, above the interests of the people?

I haven’t finished with Garzón, and unfortunately neither have the Supreme Court nor the numerous forces arrayed against him. It’s clear that the illegalisation of the recordings is the start of the case against Garzón. It is the tip of the iceberg, the first toe dipped in the water to check the temperature, and the reaction of everyone else. Garzón will be prosecuted for everything he has tried to do recently. They’ll throw enough shit at him that some will inevitably stick and, using their usual tactics, they’ll use this as a lever to manipulate the rest of the case. Eventually all of his investigations will be completely annulled.

The last time I checked, Spain was a constitutional monarchy, not a dictatorship. But there are certain forces at work that reveal that Francoism is still the most powerful force in this country. The investigation of the past is being criminalised, in addition to the investigation of corruption. No questions can be asked.

The dead dictator’s spectre casts a long shadow and will continue to do so until light is shed on the truth of what happened.