Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cinema....La Reina (The Queen)

I went to see The Queen last Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to be a republican but you have to be able to say or write a phrase like this at least once in your life. So there is my excuse for posting about a British film, that and the fact that I am off to inspect the homeland this weekend. The story told by this film, directed by Stephen Frears, is familiar to anyone who can recall the events following the death of Princess Diana in 1997. It is an account of a royal family resolutely determined to ignore the death of someone who was no longer considered a part of that family, and hiding behind a façade of protocol as they continued their summer holiday in Balmoral. Meanwhile, a newly elected government led by Tony Blair demonstrated a much keener awareness of events and deft political touch as the still fresh spin doctors quickly moulded the image of “the people’s princess”.

Eventually, the Queen is forced to recognise that something has to give as a “public opinion” spurred on by the press makes it clear that aloofness is not the expected response. The pile of flowers at the entrance to Buckingham Palace gets ever bigger, and the empty flagpole on the palace becomes a symbol of royal indifference. Back in Scotland Prince Philip decides that the best solution for the newly bereaved sons of the late Diana is to take them out to shoot deer.

This is a film that impresses most of all for the strength of its performances. Helen Mirren is excellent as the Queen, and Michael Sheen demonstrates that he has studied the mannerisms of Tony Blair down to the finest detail. He even gets that look of momentary panic that crosses Blair’s face occasionally when somebody responds to him in a way he doesn’t expect to happen. Most of the character acting is very believable, whether or not what they do or say actually corresponds with reality. We have Prince Philip (James Cromwell) showing a customary disdain for detail of any kind as he gets on with his not very busy life, and a typically hand-wringing and agonising Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), who gets surprisingly favourable treatment in the film. The Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) gets away without being portrayed as the gin soaked Nazi that semi-reliable sources always assured us that she was. For some reason we are missing Princess Anne, not that it makes a great deal of difference to anything.

I liked the film, but if I have a problem with it is that in the end it lets everyone off the hook; we are invited to admire Blair for his political agility in handling the situation (rather than seeing the opportunism that was involved), and the Queen for the dignified way in which she responds to the pressure to change direction. I’m not convinced that the gulf between the “modernising” Blair government and the stuffiness of the royal family is actually as great as is shown here, any more than I believe that Blair was ever particularly sceptical about royalty. There is one great moment in the film when Mirren’s Queen reminds Blair that what has happened to her could also happen to him; I have always believed that much of his initial self-confidence over taking Britain into the Iraq war comes from that moment when he believed he was speaking for the people about the death of Diana. The belief that he could convince the public of his case on anything was probably born in September 1997.

It was a curious period, I was already living in Spain at the time and I have to admit, even though I have no liking for him, that I had a few Prince Philip moments as I turned on the TV to see yet another 6 hour special on the life of the person known here as “Laddy Dee”. I never bought the idea that the outpouring of grief for Diana was about the English finding their emotional side, to me it always seemed to be much more a reflection of the cult of celebrity. Before Diana died she was a figure of fun for so many, those carefully arranged interviews on television and the awful stunt of turning up in the middle of someone’s heart operation for the photo.

A few months after Diana’s death, I was working for a while in Jakarta. One evening, as I relaxed with what was almost certainly a well deserved beer, a group of Indonesian students selected me for a bit of English practice. After chatting for a while, the leader of the group (who was virtually the only one saying anything in English) said something along the lines of “Mr Graeme, I want you to know that when our class heard about the death of Princess Diana we all cried”. These were not school kids, they were of university age and they live on the other side of the planet. I didn’t know what to say, my immediate temptation was to reply “Why?”, but keeping things polite I think I just opted for a bland “Oh, did you?” and then changed the subject to something else. Still, the film is definitely worth seeing, I’m not aware of anything remotely similar about the Spanish royal family.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Christmas Appeal Update....1 Euro For Espe

Who said solidarity was dead? The wave of public sympathy provoked by the appalling plight of poor Esperanza Aguirre has now reached the point where everyone can do their bit to help drag her out of poverty. The brave and selfless initiative launched by Periodismo Incendiario has now led to the creation of the web page 1 Euro Para Espe. From this page anyone will soon be able to make a donation of 1 Euro (or more) to this campaign, which is intended to run until the 12th April 2007.

Should Esperanza, perhaps out of pride or what remains of her self-respect, reject the generous offer of the money that has been collected, the proceeds will be shared between the following campaigns:

La Asociación de Victimas del 11-M - the association of victims of the Madrid bombings which has been refused support by the regional government of Madrid.

Attac España - an NGO who can use the money to campaign against poverty.

The payment options currently available are via direct payment into the Bankinter account number:
0128 / 0360 / 65 / 0100026664

or send an SMS text message MENS ESPE EURO to the number 5377 - you will receive a message in return acknowledging your donation, I just tried it and it works. The cost of the text message is 0,90 cents. Of this money only part goes to the campaign so you may wish to send two messages.

If you agree with this campaign and you have a blog or web page, then please help to spread the message. If you agree and just want to make a donation then that is great. Let's show that the Internet also works for helping the needy, I am sure Esperanza will never forget your gesture.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Walking Against The Flow

There were Barbour coats by the hundred. Spanish flags too, thousands of them, and umbrellas because all those fine clothes don’t look so good in the rain. Yes, I went to have a look at the AVT’s demonstration. It was a damp Saturday afternoon and I had a bit too much time on my hands so I thought I would do an eye witness report from the front line of the Partido Popular’s campaign against the Basque peace process.

There they were marching, of course, in one of Madrid’s more upmarket barrios. The demonstration mixed the theme of opposition to what they describe as the government “surrender” to ETA, together with the campaign to promote conspiracy theories on the Madrid bombings. So naturally the peones negros were there with their banners, so was the entire leadership of the PP – leader Mariano Rajoy, Esperanza Aguirre (she saves on her heating bills if she gets out more), Angel Acebes and even Madrid’s mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardon, who is regarded as dangerously left wing by many of those attending.

Special attention was paid by many of the demonstrators to a small familiar looking man walking in front of a banner proclaiming that “España no se rinde” (Spain does not surrender). It was none other than the man so memorably described by Jeb Bush as “President Ansar of Spain”. The cry went up: “Se nota, se siente, Aznar esta presente”. Apart from these isolated moments of over-excitement the demonstration was not particularly noisy, of course we heard the familiar and predictable calls for Zapatero to resign; but perhaps the advanced age of many of the participants made it harder for them to make themselves heard. One or two demonstrators attempted to express their feelings in English, my particular favourite was the placard proclaiming that Zapatero is “mat and treacherous”. No, that is not a typo – at least not by me anyway.

So on to the big question, how many people were there? The regional government of Madrid claims 1,300,000, not that a government presided by Esperanza Aguirre should be considered in any way biased. The figure is propagandistic nonsense, and as usual they have failed to reveal the method they used to arrive at this total. The government estimate was 130,000 and is undoubtedly much closer to the reality, measuring the space occupied by the demonstration there would need to be about 20 demonstrators per square metre to get anywhere near the million mark – that would leave muddy footprints on many of those expensive jackets. I walked most of the length of the demonstration in the opposite direction, and at no point did I need to climb over human towers of irate PP supporters; the surrounding streets were virtually empty of demonstrators.

These figures are important because the AVT and PP are determined to try and present these demonstrations as part of a growing civic rebellion against the government’s position, and they are having to deal with the reality that those being mobilised are just the hard core of their supporters. 130-150,000 people on a demonstration is not an unimpressive figure by any means, but it is well below what the organisers have managed to assemble previously, their train is not gathering speed despite the current difficulties in the peace process and the doubts that many people in Spain have about it.

Updated: here are some photos I took of the demonstration, the poor quality is down to me using a telephone instead of a proper camera!

1 family size umbrella per square metre....

They said I was mat! I'll show them....

Crazies night out....

Aznar stands firm..he's in there somewhere....

See how difficult it was to get close?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Lipstick On Your Collar

Australia's finest played in Madrid last night, they didn't play this song but their cover of River Deep Mountain High remains one of my all time favourites.

The Saints - Lipstick On Your Collar

Thursday, November 23, 2006

It's Safe To Sing

Whilst I am genuinely trying to prevent this blog turning into the South of Watford Journal of Legal Studies, I am happy to be able to report that one of the legal cases I have been following has finished with the right outcome. The case brought by the Association of Victims of Terrorism (AVT) accusing the rock band Soziedad Alkoholika of praising terrorism in their songs has finally been rejected by the courts. The band faced the possibility of 18 months imprisonment for the alleged offence. As a face saving measure, the judgement has suggested that one of the songs cited in the accusation was close to the line; we are not told whether the judges involved have bought the album or not.

Anyone who thinks that this means the AVT is going to dedicate more time to representing the victims of terrorism would be wrong, they are far too busy organising the anti-government demonstration planned for this Saturday in Madrid. This makes it a good weekend for escaping from the city.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The South Of Watford Christmas Appeal

Christmas is traditionally a festive occasion, when families gather together to eat and drink, argue, fall asleep in front of the television and give each other gifts that nobody really wants. In addition to this, it is also a time for reflection and for thinking of others who are perhaps less fortunate than ourselves.

Manuel Rico at Periodismo Incendiario has drawn my attention to the sad case of Esperanza Aguirre. At first sight it seems that Esperanza has more than anyone could possibly ask for in life; she is president of the regional government of Madrid, married to the Count of Murillo, has a palace in Madrid and extensive estates in Ávila, Salamanca and Guadalajara. However, we should not be fooled by this superficial appearance of affluence. According to a newly published biography of Esperanza (simply titled “The President” – no delusions of grandeur here), she is facing a difficult Christmas. Esperanza confesses in this authorised biography that at times she has difficulty making it to the end of the month on her salary. Also, unlike many others in Spain, she does not receive 14 salary payments throughout the course of the year, she has to make do with just 12. Imagine, with Christmas fast approaching, the sacrifices she will need to make to get through the festive period without having that extra December payment that so many others will be enjoying and using to fund this carnival of exaggerated consumption!

Despite her troubles, she keeps smiling....

In telling the story, Esperanza recalls that as President of the Senate her salary was sufficient, but that sadly the 100,742 euros that she now receives every year for presiding the government of Madrid is just not enough. Most of her clothes, we are told, she buys in Zara; only one step above having to forage in the charity shops. Then there are the servants who have to be paid, the heating bills for those palaces and estates must be tremendous (the ceilings are so high in these old buildings), the list is endless. Esperanza, as I am sure I hardly need to explain, means “hope” in English. It is my hope that the readers of this blog will want to make their contribution to helping her get through this difficult patch. As soon as I manage to find a suitable tax haven to set up the account for donations, I will make the details available to all.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Entre Copa Y Copa

Memorable concert by Lila Downs last Saturday night at the Circulo de Bellas Artes here in Madrid. Here's the trailer from her last album where she pays homage to her Mexican roots:

Monday, November 20, 2006

Carlitos' Way

Ok class, it's history and geography today; so pay attention. First the history. On the 28th September 1556 the emperor Carlos V (Carlos 1 of Spain) disembarked at Laredo in Cantabria to begin the journery to what was to be his final resting place, the Monastery of Yuste in the province of Cáceres. He arrived at Yuste in February 1557, and died aged 58 in September of the following year.

Now for the geography. The last section of this route, starting from Tornavacas in the Valle del Jerte, is a well marked trail taking walkers across to the small town of Jarandilla de la Vera; not far from Yuste. I did this route last week, although I have to admit I didn't do the full 28 kilometres; unlike Carlos I didn't have anyone to carry me. It is a beautiful route, helped by the effect of the recent rains which have refreshed the countryside and the rivers.

With this post South Of Watford becomes spatially enabled. Anyone who has the Google Earth client installed on their computer will be able to see the place or route which is the subject of the post, just by clicking on the planet icon shown here:

Friday, November 17, 2006

Spanish Football For Beginners....The Pelotazo

The pelotazo is a complex offensive manoeuvre usually initiated by the president of the football club. Play begins when the president invites the mayor of the city which the club belongs to out for dinner at an expensive restaurant. After juggling with some finely sliced Iberian ham, and dribbling around a choice selection of seafood, the serious part of the move begins. The objective for the president is to make the mayor understand that the best way forward for the football club is to redevelop either their stadium or their training ground, whichever happens to be situated on the most valuable piece of land. As a result of this slick piece of trickery, and before anyone can shout “fuera de juego”, there will be a few thousand new homes built, a new stadium is constructed on the edge of the city, the football club’s debt will disappear overnight, and everyone involved will do very nicely for themselves. This manoeuvre usually works better if the football club president owns a construction company. If the mayor owns one too then success is almost guaranteed. It can also have the beneficial side effect of confusing the opposition, who turn up to play at the previous location of the stadium.

The pioneers of this revolutionary tactic were of course Real Madrid, when Florentino Perez took over as club president. Having their central Madrid training ground reclassified to allow construction of four massive office buildings has wiped out their debt and paid for all of the major signings of the last few years. The income generated is estimated to be around 500 million euros, not that it has had much effect on their results. Murcia has already followed the Madrid example, and Valencia is set to do the same; both clubs stand to benefit to the tune of 150-200 million euros, and other clubs are lining up similar operations. Atletico Madrid intend to make the pelotazo a key part of their strategy for the future, and are expecting profits of the same magnitude that Real obtained. The debate about whether to play 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 is all very well, physical preparation is of course important, but the most important thing in today’s game is never to take your eye off the pelotazo.

Play Spot the Ball - 1000`s of prizes to be won!

Mark with an x where you think the ball is in the above photo

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Remember, Remember, The 20th Of November

Continuing with yesterday’s theme of dictators here we have further evidence, if any was needed, that El Mundo is fast becoming the favourite newspaper of the far right in Spain. Take a look at one of the death notices they have printed today:

The Fundación Franco have also announced a mass in Franco’s memory for this Saturday at the Valley of the Fallen near to Madrid – the weather forecast is for rain.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Not Welcome Here…..Teodoro Obiang

The dictator of Ecuatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, is here in Spain on an official visit. The oil-rich African country, a former Spanish colony, should be able to provide its relatively small population with one of the highest standards of living in the world. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the population lives in abject misery as the country’s oil wealth goes almost entirely to foreign companies and the tiny elite consisting of Obiang’s family and friends. Meanwhile the opposition to the regime has been subjected to tremendous pressure and persecution, the country’s jails have a well deserved reputation for being truly awful places. Despite this, Spanish foreign minister Moratinos has claimed that the human rights situation in the country is improving; no evidence has been produced to back up the assertion.

Here's how we deal with dictators....

It seems that Obiang’s visit to the Spanish parliament today has been cancelled after protests, he probably won’t mind very much as he is not a big enthusiast for democratic institutions. He still gets to have dinner with the king, and I’m sure that there will be a token mention of human rights while all sides sort out the benefits which Repsol can expect to receive from the visit. The strategic importance of the country is significant because of its oil reserves, both the US and China are very active diplomatically in oil producing African countries these days as they seek alternative sources of supply. Equatorial Guinea is the third biggest oil exporter in Africa.

A failed coup attempt in the country by mercenaries a couple of years ago was what led to the downfall of Mark Thatcher, who was living the good life in South Africa until becoming involved in the plot. Thatcher..Obiang..Thatcher..Obiang…..there’s a difficult choice if ever there was one. It is still not very clear who was behind this plot, although there have been rumours that the Spanish government (at the time led by Jose Maria Aznar) was either involved or at least aware of what was being planned. There has always been a mystery about the sending of two Spanish warships to the country a few weeks before the arrest of the mercenaries, and the unexplained decision to abruptly cancel this mission when the ships were already on their way. There is not necessarily any connection between this and the coup attempt, I haven’t become a conspiracy theorist, but there was never a very convincing explanation of what was going on.

See Guerra Eterna for more information about the visit (in Spanish).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Across The Green Pastures Of Madrid

Sunday saw what remains of an old tradition in Madrid; as a herd of about 1000 sheep made their way across the centre of the city following the route of a “cañada real”, one of the routes created centuries ago and which remain open to all those moving their livestock from one part of the country to another. On their way into the city the sheep had to negotiate the chaotic walkways of the massive construction project burying part of the M-30, the inner ring road.

The spectacle attracted huge crowds, now that not so many Madrileños have such close connections with the villages where their parents came from. It also reportedly collapsed traffic in the city, although recently I’ve come to the conclusion that it is pedestrians that are at the heart of Madrid’s traffic problems. The reason I have reached such a startling conclusion has been the activities of the agentes de movilidad (mobility agents), a uniformed force created supposedly to improve traffic flow in the city. How do they do this? From my experience their main activity is to reduce the amount of time that pedestrians have to cross the road; hence my conclusion that those who choose to walk are clearly the main obstacle to free flowing traffic. It’s not as if Madrid drivers need much encouragement to indulge in the ancient tradition of “saltando el semáforo” (jumping the lights), I’ve had people almost driving over my feet as they accelerate in the face of a traffic light that has just changed to red.

So there you go, if we could only get rid of the sheep and the pedestrians, the traffic problem goes away. Forget all that nonsense about it it having something to do with the number of cars on the road.

Monday, November 13, 2006

March 11th....The Wrong Kind Of Victims, The Right Kind Of Judge

800,000 euros. According to El País on Saturday, that is the amount of money which the regional government of Madrid, led by Partido Popular hardliner Esperanza Aguirre, has budgeted for assistance to victims of terrorism in the year 2007. Now, here is today's big question. How much of this money will go to the Asociación 11-m, Afectados por Terrorismo; the association which represents the largest number, if not the majority, of affiliated victims of the Madrid train bombings?

The answer to the above question is zero....not a cent....nothing. There is plenty of money for other associations representing terrorist victims (such as the AVT), so what could the difference be? Well, perhaps it is because the Asociación 11-M doesn't use its money to organise political demonstrations against the government, nor does it use it on lawyers fees for the prosecution of rock groups over the content of their lyrics. Perhaps even more importantly, this association does not support the conspiracy theories which attempt to attribute the authorship of the bombings to an alliance between ETA and the Spanish government. Instead, it devotes it's time and resources to representing the victims of the worst terrorist attack in the country's history, an activity which Madrid's government clearly does not believe to be sufficiently worthy of financial support.

The scales are tipping to the right...

Meanwhile, the bizarre case of the "boric acid report" supposedly linking ETA to the Madrid bombings is moving towards an ever more absurd conclusion. The Madrid judge Gemma Gallego has overturned all of the conclusions in the case that were reached by fellow judge Baltasar Garzón, who accused the original authors of the report of committing an act of falsification of official documents. Gallego has cleared the three police officers who prepared the original report, explaining their curious decision to reissue their report 16 months after the original was rejected by saying that they had noticed the original was no longer in its envelope. We are offered no further explanation of their actions and no mention is made of the fact that all copies of the report almost immediately made it into the hands of El Mundo following this decision to reissue.

On top of this, Gallego has prepared the way for almost the entire chain of command of these officers to be prosecuted for the offence of falsification; no fewer than four senior officers are facing the possibility of being charged. All of this because an entirely speculative paragraph relating the discovery of boric acid, a common household substance, in the home of one of those accused for the Madrid bombings to the same substance being found in the safe house in of an ETA commando, was removed from the final version of the report. There is no connection between the two discoveries, there is no suggestion that boric acid was used in either case for anything relating to terrorist activities, and there is no record of boric acid ever having been used in such activities in Spain. The decision to delete the reference to ETA in what is supposed to be a report based on scientific analysis is entirely justified.

Perhaps Gallego has strong legal reasons for the conclusions she has reached, but her handling of the case has been far less transparent or comprehensive than that carried out by Garzón, who explained his reasons in detail. El Mundo is already running with the issue as if those accused have been convicted, should that actually happen the conspiracy theorists can be expected to go into overdrive with their allegations that connections between ETA and the bombings have been suppressed as a result of political pressure from the government. Wait a minute, did I forget to mention something? Oh yes, judge Gallego is a candidate of the conservative judges association for election to the Consejo Superior del Poder Judicial. This body is supposed to play an important part in the running of the judicial system, but it has recently become discredited because the current conservative majority has acted as a partisan bloc adopting decisions with evident political intentions. Given the behaviour of the current Consejo, it is unlikely anyone is nominated for the conservative association without being a loyal follower of the party line; Gallego should feel at home if she is chosen.

I have no idea whether the courts in Madrid have a statue of the Scales of Justice, but if they do I suggest the best thing to do would be to place it in a dark corner and cover it with a sack, because justice has recently become a rare and precious commodity in these parts.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Chronicle Of A Peace Process....The Judges Have Their Say

A peace process in the Basque Country that was already moving very slowly faces a new obstacle today. The ETA prisoner Iñaki de Juana Chaos, whose hunger strike I wrote about recently, was yesterday sentenced to just under 13 years imprisonment for alleged terrorist threats he made in newspaper article. The sentence is the heaviest ever to be handed down for this offence, and even the judges had to accept that the alleged threats were veiled ones. The decision is very questionable, there is no clear threat to anyone in the articles that were published, and the whole case is more a result of political and media pressure to prevent De Juana from being released after having completed his previous sentence. As a consequence De Juana has now announced another hunger strike, and this can be expected to mobilise support amongst ETA sympathisers.

Combine this judicial decision with the political consequences of the arms theft in France attributed to ETA, and it's hard to see how things can move forward in the next few weeks. There was speculation over the arms theft about whether it was an indication of ETA returning to armed activity, there are no signs of this being the case. However, the government has said there will be no movement until they are completely satisfied that ETA has taken an irreversible decision to turn their back on the use of violence.

Not surprisingly, the opposition Partido Popular (PP) siezed on what they saw as an opportunity to put pressure on the government over the arms theft, and called for the whole process to be halted. So the government is in a difficult position to make any kind of concession, although the PP pressure also gives them a pretext for not making any significant moves. They seem to be opting for letting the issue cool down a bit politically before making any further moves; the problem now is that an ETA prisoner on hunger strike will make that strategy more difficult as it will raise political tension in the Basque Country.

The main enemy - for the AVT

Equally keen to raise the tension is the inappropriately named Association for the Victims of Terrorism (AVT), which has decided to call yet another of their demonstrations against the supposed surrender to ETA that Zapatero is accused of having agreed to. This demonstration will be in Madrid in 2 weeks time; as a nice touch in the run up to this event the AVT has included an image of Zapatero amongst a collection of photos of convicted ETA members, compiled under the heading of "The Faces of Terror". It will be interesting to see how many people they can mobilise on this demonstration, the most recent ones have not proven to be tremendously successful, despite having the PP put their weight behind them.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Cinema....El Laberinto del Fauno

The latest film by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, El Laberinto del Fauno (in English - Pan’s Labyrinth) is an extraordinary mixture of fantasy combined with a dramatic story about the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Set in the year 1944, the film tells the story of Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero), a young girl who travels together with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to a remote mill in the Spanish countryside. From this mill, her stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi López), is leading a company of government soldiers in the battle against anti-Franco guerrillas hiding out in the nearby mountains. The sadistic Vidal has no interest in his stepdaughter, and only shows concern for the unborn son that his wife is carrying.

One night, close to the mill, Ofelia discovers a ruined labyrinth and inside this labyrinth she encounters a faun (played by Doug Jones), who reveals to her that she is really a princess whose return to her magical kingdom is eagerly awaited. To return to the world from which she came, she must pass three tests before the full moon. The story of how Ofelia tackles these tests provides the structure for the fantasy part of the film, and the most imaginative scenes of the film.

Meanwhile back in the real world, the mill is run by the servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), apparently loyal in following the orders of Vidal; whilst secretly doing everything that she can to help the rebels. The local doctor (played by Alex Angulo) also plays a dual role, taking care of Ofelia's mother and at the same time making a risky trip into the mountains to tend injured guerrilla fighters

What might otherwise have been a satisfactory, if slightly predictable, story about the continuing anti-Franco struggle after the Civil War, becomes a different film altogether with the imaginative interweaving of fantasy and oppressive reality. Somehow, del Toro manages to ensure that the two stories in the film are not separate from each other, they interconnect with each other at different points throughout the film. Bizarre though it might seem, the resulting film is strangely effective. This film did not really attract my attention when it first came out, but having seen it I have no hesitation at all in recommending it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Three Party Politics

It was all so quick, just days after the Catalan elections we have a new government for the region; and a fairly familiar looking government it is too. Convergència I Unió (CiU), the party that obtained the most votes in the elections, failed in their attempt to persuade either the nationalist Esquerra Republicana (ERC), or the Catalan socialists (PSC) to play second string in a government dominated by CiU. That left as the only alternative a repeat of the “tripartito”, the coalition that emerged from the previous elections between the PSC, ERC, and Iniciativa per Catalunya (ICV). The deal has been done and the new government assures us that their priority is going to be social welfare. Let’s hope this is the case because the last version of the coalition was consumed almost entirely by the debate over the reform of the autonomy statute for Cataluña, and it was this issue that eventually led to its downfall and the calling of early elections. Meanwhile, CiU are furious over being denied once again the chance to rule and have withdrawn their support for the government at national level, something that shouldn’t really matter too much as long as the tripartito can survive at least until the next general election. But it’s all a little bit disappointing with such a rapid and apparently easy resolution of the issue, we needed someone like the market trader in The Life Of Brian who says “We’re supposed to haggle”.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Out For The Night

The live music scene in Madrid is not that exciting, but it still offers a reasonable range of possibilities. Last week I did something that I should do more often, and went to see some bands I'd never heard of in one of the small clubs near where I live. Only laziness stops me from doing this more. The music on this night could be described as being close to thrash metal, without reaching Napalm Death levels of excess.

The second group were my favourites of the three that performed, I don’t know what they are called so let’s call them Tattoos All The Way Up My Arms (Tatwuma for short) in honour of the member of the group who acted as enthusiastic cheerleader and part-time vocalist. Mostly his contribution seemed to consist of bellowing “Fwaaaarrrrrkk” into the microphone, but he did it well. It was, how shall I say it, a tiny bit difficult to distinguish very clearly what they were singing about – nobody will ever be able to accuse them of supporting terrorism in their songs. The only word I could clearly distinguish during their entire set was a crystal clear “cojones”! But then I found that I could more or less fit words to what I was hearing, and after a while I could convince myself that this was what they were actually singing. It is quite possible that the songs People Cry For Rice, George Bush Can’t Walk, and You’re From North London are just products of my imagination; although if you ever hear songs with these titles, then remember where you read about it first.

The club was small, and with the music not being that interesting I also had time to study the audience reactions a bit. The man at the front with more hair on his sideburns than on the rest of his head was having a great time, while there were others looking very serious and nodding intently as if they were listening to a lecture on German Expressionism rather than being at a concert. A shame that the only beer at the bar was Budweiser, awful stuff - fwaaaarrrrrrkkkk.

Friday, November 03, 2006

On Trial For Their Lyrics

I was intending to do a completely different post on a musical theme today, but on opening my copy of El País this morning I find an amazing legal farce being promoted by the Association of Victims of Terrorism (AVT). This organisation, closely aligned with the hard right faction of the Partido Popular, has brought a criminal case against the rock group Soziedad Alkoholika accusing them of praising terrorism.

The accusation is based on the lyrics of some of the songs of the group, who have denied that they are ETA supporters or that their lyrics can be interpreted in this way. The case has already been shelved twice by judges Garzon and Grande-Marlaska, but was reopened yet again on the request of the AVT. So the members of the group find themselves facing a possible prison sentence based on how a court decides to interpret the lyrics of songs which were written between 1989 and 1993, and which apparently have not been performed in public since 1996! The AVT, which supposedly exists to represent victims of terrorist actions, is becoming increasingly litigious and must be spending a significant proportion of its income on lawyers. It is of course also deeply involved in the campaign against the Basque peace process and in promoting the conspiracy theories about the Madrid train bombings.

Even leaving aside the whole question of whether there is any case at all for prosecuting the members of this group, the offence with which they have been charged was introduced as a result of a reform of the Penal Code introduced in the year 2000. This means that they face the prospect of being convicted for an offence that didn’t even exist at they time they wrote or performed these songs, such a retrospective application of the law is (supposedly) expressly forbidden by the Spanish Constitution.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The People Have Spoken....But Not Very Clearly

Those with a liking for really complex electoral politics will probable feel a little disappointed by the result of yesterday’s elections in Cataluña. In the end the formation of the next government in the region is going to depend on the left leaning nationalists of Esquerra Republicana (ERC). As predicted by the opinion polls, the right wing nationalists of Convergència I Unió (CiU) have emerged as the biggest party with a clear advantage over the Catalan socialists (PSC). However, CiU still fall well short of a majority, and need to form a coalition if they want to govern; something they can achieve with the support of ERC alone, so at least they are spared the humiliating prospect of having to bargain with anti-nationalist parties. The nationalist vote has not changed significantly, the 2 seats gained by CiU are balanced by the 2 that ERC have lost.

The big losers of the election have been the PSC, 5 seats down in the regional parliament and with their lowest vote for over 10 years. The seats they have lost probably went to Iniciativa per Catalunya (ICV) to the left of them, who gained 3, and to the new anti-nationalist party Ciutadans, who enter the parliament for the first time with 3 seats. The Partido Popular are down 1 seat as well, probably due also to the emergence of Ciutadans (who El Mundo are today treating as if they have won the elections). The outgoing 3 party coalition between the socialists, Iniciativa and ERC could also be repeated again, which is why it is ERC that really hold the key to what happens next.

In reality there has been no very significant shift in voting patterns, but the two parties with hard thinking to do are the PSC and ERC. In the case of the PSC it looks as if their shift towards a more Catalanist position during their time in office has proved costly, they have lost votes to the left and from that sector of their support that does not identify itself strongly with Cataluña. This would not be such a problem if they could attract nationalist voters, but there is no sign that this has happened. The bad result has come despite a new face as candidate, and with a strong involvement in the campaign from Zapatero, who is generally popular in Cataluña.

ERC are in the position of being the kingmakers, but are going to have to make a choice which has profound implications for the future direction of the party. Their impressive increase in support over the last few years has gone into reverse, and if they show a preference for putting the conservative nationalists of CiU back into power then their pretensions to be seen as something more than just another nationalist party will disappear. They will just confirm themselves as Option B for nationalist voters. On the other hand, their nationalist stance requires that any alliance with the non-nationalist parties of the left brings benefits for their positions. They are in a position of strength for negotiating their support, but at the same time the soul of the party could disappear as a result of the process. If ERC try to ask for too much from both of the larger parties, there is also the possibility of a super-coalition between Convergència and the PSC.