Tag Archives: PP

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.

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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.

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.

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.

The Economy I: Bricks and Golden Eggs

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Where better place to start than with construction? Bricks and mortar have been the driving force of the Spanish economy with the skyline of every town and city broken by the skeletal sight of several cranes. Construction has produced a huge amount of wealth for Spain, for local government and of course for the developers and speculators. A wealth generator yes, but personally I believe it has led to a myth of economic development. The economy hasn’t developed in a wider sense and the idea that construction could keep on pushing the country forwards forever was always going to be impossible. Of course it’s very easy to say that now, but it was clear before the start of the recession that it was an unsustainable policy. Understandably the banks, politicians and developers kept working the golden goose until it collapsed. Why bother changing something that works well for them?

There are a million people in construction without work because of the recession. 350,000 new posts will be created the new project for the renovation of old buildings. This will be encouraged by reducing VAT for these projects, reducing taxes and costs and increasing particular loans. Attractive incentives, but who is actually going to fund these works? Is it really profitable for the developers to realise this kind of labour? Does this mean rehabilitating empty buildings to sell on? To whom? Or if they are already inhabited, will the occupants want to pay? What about the rest of the people?

It seems that all of the political parties are waiting for construction to pick up again. It won’t work. It’s an economic model that is fundamentally unsustainable in a country that has a million unsold and unoccupied flats. Spain is in an awkward position as this is affecting everyone: there are a million unemployed in this sector and many people from the middle class who thought they could make a fast buck buying and renting/selling a second property. Now that the bubble’s burst, they’ve got problems: they want to sell but no one wants (or can) buy. Or if they want to buy, the price is inflated because the owners need to recoup as much money as possible. Prices are high compared to salaries and there are too many flats –what is the point in building more? The younger generations are being held to ransom by the speculators. Add to this the fact that many homes in the south were being bought by foreigners. These foreigners have enough problems in their own countries with unemployment etc and won’t be looking to buy a second home soon. Similarly, the British expats are seeing their pensions steadily fall in value because of the euro and consequently life is getting more and more expensive, with the result that many want to return home.

What is needed is a fundamental shift in the focus of the economy. It will be painful and hurt a great number of people, but I feel it is necessary in order to give work to the 1,000,000 unemployed construction workers, get the economy moving again and create a sustainable economic model. This requires investment, not cuts. The biggest problem of the economy is unemployment and the idea of cutting public spending is an absolute no-brainer. What is required is targeted and controlled investment.

Construction has led to a myth of development. Many people have got rich with the construction boom, but that hasn’t developed the economy in any way. The people at the bottom continue to struggle along as best they can with astronomical mortgages. It has been a golden goose for some, but the eggs are no longer being laid. The problem is that the politicians, who for a long time have benefited from part of the construction contract egg, are not willing to shoot it.

The Anti-Recession Commission: ‘Come on people, let’s sort it out!’

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Today the cross-party Anti-Recession Commission meets for the first time in Madrid to sort out once and for all the problems that the Spanish economy is facing. To me it seems like a ‘Big Talk’ sketch from Mitchell and Webb: ‘Come on boffins, let’s sort it out now!’

I can only see two possible outcomes of this series of meetings (which will take up to two months, by which time how many people will be unemployed? Why hasn’t this been done before?) and here they are:

  1. Absolute disaster. The diametrically opposed parties find it impossible to come to any agreement about anything as they fail to reach consensus on cuts and how to generate employment. Another two months is lost and the economy continues to stagnate.
  2. A policy so-watered-down-it’s-transparent is published to a great fanfare. The PP have got their way in demolishing what the PSOE wanted to do whilst the PSOE can celebrate having at least reached a consensus on something. Two months have been lost and it’s unlikely the policies will work anyway.

Why won’t these potential policies work? Because it isn’t the PP’s interests to cooperate and rebuild the Spanish economy. They’re doing fabulously well (at least in their own eyes) sitting back and pointing out what is going wrong. The longer the recovery takes, the better for the conservatives. And then of course there’s the other reason why the policies won’t work: they won’t sort out the real structural problems with the economy because all the parties are afraid to do it (and because they benefit from this economic model.) That takes a great deal more explaining, and I’ll try to do so in the coming weeks.

The cross-party Anti-Recession Commission? Doomed (or perhaps programmed) to fail. I do hope I’m wrong.

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?