Tag 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.

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 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.

Contemporary Feudalism

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Esperanza Aguirre, the President of the Community of Madrid, has attempted to ignite the whole of Spain with her call to rebellion against the rise in the VAT rates from July 1st. Critics of this measure say that is unfair to burden the citizens with this tax rise and that it won’t help the economic recovery. The socialists see it as a good way of covering the deficit and explain that Spain has the lowest VAT rates in Europe. This post is not about the pros and cons of this measure. It’s about the meaning of the gesture by Aguirre, a politician who is either considered by the PP to be a heroic defender of their values or a loose cannon that damages the cohesion and unity of the party.

Aguirre’s capacity for audacious gestures is breathtaking. She is calling for rebellion whilst fees and taxes are being raised faster in Madrid than anywhere else in Spain. How can this happen? The answer lies within the system of Autonomous Communities itself, a system improvised during the Transition. The system has allowed for the growth in local oligarchies. National party politics are reproduced at a local level and are to a great extent more important than national politics because of the huge amount of power devolved to the Autonomous Communities. The Presidents are medieval barons of their individual fiefs, who have built up their own power structures in their local areas. Prime examples of this are Camps (who is still widely supported in Valencia despite the Gürtel scandal) and Aguirre (who regularly challenges Rajoy indirectly.) These barons then flex their muscles, pushing at the boundaries between the Autonomous Communities and the state: for example the censoring of a museum exhibition in Valencia and Telemadrid, which has become the PP’s vehicle for expounding their views.

Local agendas affect the perception of national politics and place the local oligarchies in the advantageous position of being able to manipulate the introduction of legislation within their region and blame the problems on national government. Where the party in opposition in the national parliament (currently the PP) is in power at Autonomous Community level, it can serve as a counterweight to the national government, vociferously complaining and dragging its heels with respect to the introduction of national laws within their fiefs. It is not right that social legislation (as national policy) should be implemented differently according to the region and local politics, to the detriment of the citizens. Consequently the implementation of laws varies widely between different Autonomous Communities. The system blocks the effective and efficient introduction of policy.

Where is the line between the Autonomous Communities and the state? I don’t think it has been clearly drawn yet. This means the wasting of millions of Euros, as responsibility is shifted between national government and local government (see, for example, the Law of Historical Memory. Both the Autonomous Communities and the government have declared its implementation to be the responsibility of the other) in addition to a large civil service: Spain has a big number of civil servants compared to other European countries.

There are plenty of problems with the present system, but that doesn’t mean it should be abolished. The system of Autonomous Communities is entirely workable, but it requires a clearer hierarchy with respect to responsibilities and less medieval oligarchies. The Presidents need to realise that they have a duty to their local citizens and to national government, not just to the maintenance of their personal fiefdoms. The line needs to be drawn urgently.

Transition? What Transition?

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The Garzón fiasco continues to rumble on, with the politicians and judiciary both taking sides in the dispute.

The Supreme Court seem to have hatched a plan to try and destroy the investigation into the Gürtel Case for once and for all. Their plan is: remove Garzón and you remove the problem. Not only that, Garzón has also been digging up problems from the Francoist dictatorship that the right had long thought buried. Getting rid of Garzón would eliminate the risk of him trying to drag ex-members of Franco’s political class before the judge. Of course it would also mean deposing one of the most tenacious magistrates that Spain (and the world) has in pursuing terrorists and international war crimes. Some people, it seems, have a lot to lose.

Let’s not forget that the UN has made it clear that it has serious concerns about the way in which the dictatorship is being dealt with in Spain. It is in no way acceptable that a forward thinking country that brands itself strongly internationally should still have thousands of people buried in unmarked graves. It goes against human rights, religious belief and above all, human dignity. Countries in South America have been far better examples of how to reconcile a country’s present with its past, through the use of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. In Spain, the only organisation is the grassroots NGO ‘Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica’, which is doing a fantastic job despite limited resources and even less political support.

Consequently, to prosecute Garzón is to strike a blow against all of those bodies lying in common graves. To accuse him of prevarication is a downright disgrace. If we can prosecute criminals from the Second World War, why can’t crimes from the dictatorship be denounced?

Here’s an idea that no one’s going to like. There never was a transition in Spain; it was simply a myth to pacify the population. Some of the mechanisms of power changed: elections, parliament, laws, government etc, but the true power, of the political class and above all, the judiciary, still lies in the same hands that is always has done. The real power has never changed hands. The rich Francoists are still rich. Fraga is still the ceremonial head of the PP. The current system is just a loosened version of the dictatorship with a new face. The money has never moved. The oligarchic system hasn’t changed.

The politicians have taken sides and it’s now time for the people to do so. 61% of the people surveyed by El País believe that Garzón is being hunted down specifically. It’s now time for the people to show their support on the streets, demonstrate their desire to see justice and the defence of human rights, and to reject the oligarchic system of hidden interests and alliances that damage Spain not only internally, but also on the international stage.

Football and Politics

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Maybe in Spain football and politics aren’t so different. I mean, not just in the historical sense of Catalan identity expressed at the Camp Nou during the Francoist dictatorship, rather the way in which they are both ‘played.’

I remember reading an interesting article on the BBC a few months ago about football cultures around Europe. It explained that for the British football is a game to be played by the rules, which are there to be respected at all costs, whereas in Italy it’s a game of life and death between different cities. In Spain it’s entertainment, a piece of theatre, in which diving and trying to cheat the referee are all intrinsic parts of the spectacle. Deception is therefore legitimate and positively encouraged: if the player gains an advantage he’s congratulated and feted, look how clever he is, the little bugger!

Maybe in Spain politics works in exactly the same way. That would be why Francisco Camps, the man at the centre of the Gürtel corruption case and President of the Communitat of Valencia, can declare his possessions to be two bank accounts of with a value of about €3,000, an old car, a small pension plan and half a flat worth €110,000. He knows that isn’t true. Everyone else knows it isn’t true. But the people keep supporting for him. They perhaps even admire him for it, despite the money coming from their taxes (after all he has an annual salary of €79.546.) The people would rather vote for a corrupt local politician than a different party.

Look how clever he is, the little bugger!

Anatomy of a distinctly different instant

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Recently I have been reading Javier Cercas’ Anatomía de un instante about the failed military coup of 23rd February 1981. His is an interesting perspective on the events of that day, coming from the fact that he is a writer and novelist before a historian. His main point for examining the subject is the gesture made by Adolfo Suárez when the guardia civil entered the chamber and attempting to understand the gesture, through the historical and personal context. Instead of dropping to the floor like the majority of the other MPs he remained calmly in his seat as the bullets ricocheted off the ceiling.

Cercas cites the work of Hans Magnus Enzensberger and his theory about the recent historical phenomenon of the statesman hero who is a hero of withdrawal, great not for what they build, rather what they dismantle, with Mikhail Gorbachev and the USSR being a clear example. Cercas’ work struck a distinct chord with me on Thursday when an José María Aznar stuck his middle finger up at some protesters after a meeting in Oviedo. Sometimes a photo speaks a thousand words.

What can we draw out of this gesture? Can it be compared to Adolfo Suárez? From the outset it’s clear that Aznar is not a hero of withdrawal, who quietly exits the stage after his moment of glory. The PP has never been able to accept that they lost the 2004 elections to the PSOE. This bitterness is still present in the party.

Is the gesture a gesture of defiance in a similar way to Suárez? No. There is an unbridgeable difference between sitting calmly as gunshots echo around the parliamentary chamber and showing the middle finger after a secretly-organised political meeting to the handful protesters who arrived to protest, with a self-satisfied smile. For me, the smile is the key element of the gesture. It’s a self-assured smirk, full of security and contempt for those who criticise. Such a cynical gesture is not the mark of a great statesman, it creates barriers between the people and the political leaders; the finger held up exemplifies and magnifies the distance between them. Aznar is cynically demonstrating how untouchable he is. Quite different to John Prescott’s famous 2001 punch.

Aznar is no anti-Establishment punk who can justify showing a defiant finger to the ‘System’; he embodies part of the establishment and has a central role in the machinery of power at the top of the political class in Spain.

Essentially, Suárez’s gesture was in defence of democracy, of the transition, of what had been achieved during his mandate (whether he did out of selfless sacrifice or to reinforce his historical legacy depends upon your point of view.) Aznar, in contrast, is sticking his finger up against democracy, against what has been achieved since the death of Franco, even against Suárez himself. It’s the gesture of a self-assured and conceited individual who thought it pertinent to remark: ‘Hay algunos que parecen empeñados en demostrar que no pueden vivir sin mí [there are a few who appear determined to demonstrate that they can’t live without me].’ It’s not the mark of a great statesman, but rather that of an embittered cynic, who still believes he is at the centre of the nation’s politics, making a gross gesture against criticism and debate, which are the lifeblood of democracy.

An additional note: To compound this move against democracy, the local mayor, Gabino de Lorenzo declared that those who had protested should be arrested. For what? For protesting peacefully?