Friday, March 30, 2007

Teenage Kicks

No Feargal Sharkey any more, but with Paul McLoone doing a fine job in his place, the Undertones still delivered on Wednesday night in Madrid. They sold out the place too. This is the original lineup.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Public Announcements From A Foreign Country

The reason why this blog has been especially quiet for the last few days is that I have been in the UK for a short visit. One strange thing that seems to happen after a few years outside of the country where you were born is that you start to feel more of a foreigner when you return there. What follows is a short collection of announcements made while I was travelling that gave me the sensation that things are no longer the same in the country I left almost 10 years ago:

The "please don't sue us" public safety announcement (sponsored by McDonalds?) - I had time to spare on arrival at Gatwick, so I bought a coffee. The man serving handed it to me with the words "Your coffee is hot sir". I walked down to the train platform suddenly aware for the first time that I was carrying a potentially dangerous weapon.

The "you should know we are always watching you" safety culture announcement (heard at Kings Cross station) - "Will the person playing football on platform 8 please stop, you are creating a safety hazard".

The latest excuse for why your train will not arrive (on the London Underground) - "The service on the Victoria Line has been interrupted due to a passenger action". Hopefully the person involved will be charged with attempting to use public transport with the intention of going somewhere.

Sadly, I also missed the lecture advertised by the Cambridge Basque Society on "Basque whaling off the coast of Iceland before the slaying of Spaniards". So I'm unable to confirm whether it was about tomorrow night's European Championship qualifier between Spain and Iceland, although I like to think it was. I'll get back to moaning about the PP in the next day or two.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Early Elections?

It's just a rumour, but there is a report in 20 Minutes today (seen via, that senior government officials have been told to take their holidays before the autumn in case an early general election is called for October. Now, apart from it being just a rumour, any such decision obviously depends on the results of the municipal elections at the end of May. Still, a good result in these elections for the government could provoke severe problems in the opposition and make it an attractive option.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

So What Is It About Navarra?

Given all the fuss that the Partido Popular (PP) has made about the national government supposedly agreeing with ETA to hand over Navarra to the Basque country, it might seem a little odd to find that the PP president of the regional government has raised the possibility of a coalition government with the PSOE. Why would he be proposing to deal with those who want to give the region away? What lies behind the sudden interest in Navarra’s status within Spain is really a simple question of electoral arithmetic. The Navarran government is currently run by a majority PP administration (although they call themselves the UPN in Navarra). However, if voters in the May elections vote more or less as they did at the last general election then it is goodbye to an absolute majority for the PP in the region. They might still be the biggest party, but due to the uncanny inability of the PP to create alliances with other parties it would be quite possible for them to lose power after the elections. The different Basque nationalist parties are currently uniting under the same banner in Navarra and it has brought them some success in areas where nationalist sentiment is strong.

Now I am sure that the different parties have their own internal polling data, and if the PP is shipping in demonstrators from as far away as Madrid to fill the streets of Pamplona then it is because they are scared of losing their hold on the region. So they seem to have decided that the best defence is to try and scare the voters in turn by raising the possibility of a government where the PSOE would be held “hostage” by nationalist parties who want to force Navarra to become part of the Basque country. At the same time they demand that the PSOE rejects alliances with any other party and use the subsequent (and understandable) refusal as further ammunition to try and scare the voters. If things don't go their way in the elections, expect any coalition government in Navarra to become the next "tripartit", an equivalent to the Catalan government that all upstanding right wing parents have been using to frighten their young children into obedience for the last few years.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Reclaiming The Streets

I wasn't planning to post any more for the moment about demonstrations in Madrid, but I think it’s only fair to correct the image that people may be getting of the city as a place where only the right wing come out onto the streets. I fully accept I may have contributed to this image with my previous posts on these constant anti-government protests.

Anyway, with the Partido Popular (PP) inflicting the “civic rebellion” on poor defenceless Pamplona yesterday, the streets of Madrid were left clear for a demonstration marking the anniversary of the start of the invasion of Iraq. Whilst the attendance didn’t get near to that achieved by the angry right (the Manifestómetro put it at around 50,000), or anywhere close to the massive anti-war demonstrations that preceded the invasion, it was still a respectable figure. That so many people are still prepared to be out protesting four years after the invasion only serves to emphasise what a disastrous venture it was.

This was a normal demonstration, the stage management that forms so much a part of the PP’s marches was completely absent. There was nobody there to artificially slow down the pace; I walked past the front of the march without actually being aware of it. This time I was there as a participant, not just an observer, and I felt much more at home here. The music at the end was better too, I don’t care if it offends patriots – I just prefer Peter Tosh to anybody’s national anthem.

The only moment of real tension was when the police opened up one side of the street, where thousands of people were still marching, to traffic. I don’t know whether this was a provocation, or simply stupidity; with Madrid’s administration both are equally possible. In any case the demonstrators cut the street, a couple of hundred cars had to turn around and go back, and the demonstration was allowed to occupy the space that it needed without a line of traffic coming down the middle.

Traffic jam....demonstrators get the right of way

The speeches at the end emphasised a simple but important detail, those marching yesterday could lament all of the deaths caused by war and terrorism, unlike those who so carefully select the victims they choose to honour and forget the rest.

Here's a flag you won't find on the PP's marches....¡Viva la Republica!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Aznar The Crusader....The Taliban Are Coming

The wonderful thing about embittered politicians is the difficulty they have in keeping quiet once they find they are no longer the centre of attention and are in danger of being forgotten. Margaret Thatcher was an excellent example of this until the doctors threatened to put her to sleep if she didn't keep quiet. Here in Spain we can always rely on the wisdom of José Maria Aznar to entertain us in between street protests in Madrid. This week provided a fine example of Aznarist thinking, if that is not too flattering a description of the mental process behind what follows. Responding on a reported Al-Qaeda threat to Spain because of the presence of its troops in Afghanistan, Aznar made clear what the consequences of Spanish withdrawal would mean:

"The implementation of Islamic law in part of our territory...."

Perhaps this refers to a long forgotten Spanish claim on Kandahar? It certainly cannot be a reference to Navarra, because that has already been handed over to ETA by Zapatero. This startling revelation was made at a press conference to launch a book bizarrely titled "What do the Spanish neo-cons think?". Who are the Spanish neo-cons might be a better question, there can't be much more than 20 of them and its hard not to think that they might just have missed the boat on this issue. One thing is for sure, if things get very tough for the Spanish troops in Afghanistan, you can be sure that Aznar and the neoconitos will do their very best to organising a demonstration against the government.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Next Stop Navarra

Now that the numbers issue is done with, it's time to look at some of the political fallout following last weekend's demonstration. When hundreds of thousands of people marched against José Maria Aznar's disastrous participation in the invasion of Iraq, Aznar contemptuously dismissed the protests as "placard politics". It seems hard to imagine that he doesn't recall the phrase as he and his party take to the streets week after week. The notion that the demonstration was somehow non party political is even more laughable than the attendance estimates. Despite the appropriation of once neutral symbols that don’t belong to them, everything about the march was designed to promote the Partido Popular (PP) and its leader, Mariano Rajoy. The stewards coordinated the chanting, and most of these chants were aimed directly at Prime Minister Zapatero. References to De Juana Chaos were fairly sparse; perhaps because they coudn't get an easy rhyme with "Rajoy presidente".

Meanwhile, the demands of maximising the impact for the ever present helicopter of Telemadrid meant that the march itself advanced at a snails pace. I found a vantage point to watch the front go past and it took about 20 minutes just to advance 70-80 metres, and not because of anything that was blocking the way. With such a short route, it only takes about 10 minutes to walk it normally, the march would be over in no time if they didn’t deliberately slow it down. Rajoy has declared that it was "beautiful", so much did he enjoy the adulation he received that he has decided he needs another fix; Navarra is the place chosen for next Saturday's street protest. Someone needs to tell him that there won't be one like this every weekend, and that he shouldn't confuse public opinion with PP opinion.

Now at least Madrid can relax a bit. Even allowing for their current state of over-excitement it should still be difficult for the PP or their allies to organise any further demonstrations in the city for at least another 10 days or so. A previous mayor of Madrid once suggested that maybe the city should create a designated space for demonstrations - a "manifestódromo", he was concerned more about the interruption of the city’s traffic than anything else. At the time the idea rightly attracted derision, but after months of angry right wingers marching up and down the same street in the centre every second weekend, you do start to feel that maybe they need somewhere where they can go and be as angry as they want without bothering the rest of us. Nobody else gets much chance to protest these days, perhaps what we need is a quota system.

Rajoy and his troops will be marching this weekend in Navarra against the (wholly imaginary) "annexation" of the region by the Basque country. This fictional concession that Zapatero is alleged to have made to ETA is yet another pretext for maintaining the political tension. In reality the PP will be taking to the streets in protest against something which they have invented. On that basis they will have the potential to be out marching every weekend for years to come.

Yesterday in parliament the Interior Minister, Alfredo Rubalcaba, rightly pulled out the list (the loooong list) of concessions that the PP made on ETA prisoners when they were in power, and we are not just talking about one prisoner being put under house arrest. He also used exactly the same words used by one of his PP predecessors to explain why the government took the decision on De Juana Chaos. The government is hitting back hard at the PP's hypocrisy on the issue, and nobody who studies the full range of measures that the PP took when in power can complain about this behaviour being raised. The next big test is going to come in the run up to the municipal elections in May, and the attempts by ETA’s political wing, the still illegal Batasuna, to present candidates. The PP is already preparing itself for this issue and probably hoping to turn it into the central theme of the campaign. However, unless the government makes a serious miscalculation of ETA’s or Batasuna’s intentions, it is unlikely that the PP will find another issue that will give them the same impetus as De Juana Chaos.

It seems crazy, even allowing for the bomb at Madrid airport at the end of December, that terrorism should be the highest profile political issue. This parliament has, touch wood, seen the lowest number of victims of terrorism of any since the restoration of democracy after Franco's death. In one sense the PP have succeeded in their relentless campaign to make the issue the centre of attention. Whether or not this effort will give them the electoral reward they are seeking from it is open to question, the next opinion polls will be interesting. The 12 months up to next year’s general elections are going to see some very tough politics in Spain, the big unknown is whether the PP’s aggressive opposition is going to achieve its objective of persuading some of those who elected the current government to stay at home the next time they are called on to vote. It could have the opposite effect of mobilising the anti-PP vote.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Pick Any Number, Just Make It A Big One

Before examining the political consequences of Saturday's event, let's have a quick look at the now traditional numbers game that always follows any of these anti-government demonstrations. It seems that my prediction that Madrid's regional government would put the attendance at over 3 million was too much even for their highly imaginative counters. They did, however, manage to get over 2 million attending. Now, if you consider that the total surface area covered by the demonstration is a bit over 200,000 square metres this gives an average density of 10 very angry right wingers per square big flags!

Estimates by those whose contact with planet Earth is a bit more regular put the attendance at between 250-350,000, which of course is not bad but does not satisfy the needs of those who believe they are heading a massive civic rebellion. El Mundo's web site initially put the estimate within this range, but the article was quickly removed and the printed paper never quoted such a low figure - see the story on this at Over at the Manifestómetro you can find a truer picture.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Mariano's Big Day Out

Hot off the press come some of the first images of today's Partido Popular demonstration in Madrid. It's all a bit tedious and tightly controlled these days, I liked it more when we got the homemade banners. Talking of which, if anyone wants to know where the "Zapatero is Mat" placard has gone, El Rey de la Baraja has the answer.

Friday, March 09, 2007

A Weekend To Remember

The Partido Popular (PP) is pulling out all the stops to get maximum participation in tomorrow's protest in Madrid against the government, allegedly called because of the decision to move the ETA prisoner Iñaki de Juana Chaos to the Basque country. Party supporters will be bussed in from all around the country, I have no doubt that the PP controlled regional government of Madrid is already estimating the attendance at 3 million or above; given their traditional tendency to multiply the real attendance by 10 when they support the protest. South of Watford's roving reporter will almost certainly be there to bring a first-hand report, I really should find something better to do with my Saturday afternoons!

Tomorrow will be the high tide of the so called "civic rebellion" against the government, and the PP knows it. They are playing a very cynical hand, attempting to pretend that there is no party political motive behind the protest. In the process, they have even adopted symbols of organisations that have no political alignment on the issue, trying to make them their own. Madrid regional president, Esperanza Aguirre, called the decision to move De Juana Chaos "the saddest day for democracy since the 23rd February (a reference to the attempted coup in 1981)". In fact there have been much sadder days since 1981. One particular day which you might imagine would be present in the mind of someone who governs Madrid could be the day of the train bombings in 2004; after all it led to the death of 192 people and almost 2000 wounded. Yet Esperanza finds no room for this day on her list of shame.

I doubt it has escaped the notice of the PP leadership that they are mobilising their supporters the day before the 3rd anniversary of the train bombings, and that their protest will inevitably overshadow the memory of those attacks. If I were as cynical as they certainly are, I might even suggest that is what they want to do.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Madrid's Exit....The Scientific Explanation

I have a much better explanation for Real Madrid's elimination from the Champions League last night than the usual "we were a bit unlucky", or "the referee should have given us 18 penalties". According to El País, German scientists have discovered the ability to know what someone’s intentions are before they actually do anything! Now clearly the Madrid players would not be aware that Roberto Carlos would just let the ball bounce off his foot (it seems they don’t learn from experience), but German technology means that Bayern were ready and better prepared.

In any case, Madrid’s exit from this competition is a bit like springtime and global warming; every year it seems to come a little bit earlier. You don’t have to be a great visionary to see that Fabio Capello, the Italian Messiah whose reappearance had been eagerly awaited for years by the faithful, is about to start packing his possessions. His successor will have to start virtually from scratch with a completely unbalanced squad. Meanwhile there is no urgent need to build any extensions to the Bernabeu stadium trophy room.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Ice Cream, You Scream, We All Scream For Ice Cream

What used to be called the Teatro Calderón in the centre of Madrid has recently undergone a name change, and re-emerged as the Teatro Haagen Dazs! Not everyone seems to be content with the change, as these photos that I took last week demonstrate. Needless to say the statement they were making didn't last for very long.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Chronicle Of A Peace Process....The Hunger Strike Ends, The Hypocrisy Continues

I am aware that titling this post as being about the Basque peace process might suggest that I am suffering from a sudden attack of over-optimism. On the surface, things remain much as they have been since ETA’s bomb attack at Madrid airport. However, there are small signs that something could yet be happening in this dormant process

Arnaldo Otegi, the leader of Batasuna (ETA’s political wing) made a declaration last week in which he said that neither Batasuna or ETA expected the Spanish government to pay a political price for peace. With an eye on the municipal elections in May, it is widely assumed that Otegi is trying to move to a situation which would permit Batasuna to present itself as a legal party; although time is running very short on this one. The words he pronounced might not seem like very much, but this is a situation where changes in nuance and the emphasis given to certain words occasionally acquire great significance

The government is certainly going to need more than this before making any significant moves, a situation where ETA carry out a bombing every time they are dissatisfied with progress is not sustainable, and in many ways the bombing at Madrid airport has made the situation much more difficult. However, the decision to move ETA hunger striker Iñaki de Juana Chaos to a hospital in San Sebastian and then to let him serve the rest of his sentence under house arrest, has led many to think that perhaps there is some movement after all. It is a decision that could be costly for the government, any leniency towards this prisoner is not very popular. The government did not have to do it, but it has the result of defusing tension in the Basque country and perhaps means more than that; we shall find out in the coming weeks.

The decision to move De Juana Chaos has provoked predictable, and very hypocritical, outrage from the Partido Popular (PP). Madrid, having survived just over a week without an anti-government demonstration is now to get another one this Saturday as the PP seeks to capitalise on what they hope will be a deeply unpopular decision. One significant difference, at least this time the PP is calling the demonstration in its own name instead of using one of their satellite organisations as a front for their protest at what they call "ETA blackmail".

However, those responsible for generating so much of this synthetic outrage over the decision affecting De Juana Chaos also have some explaining to do. During the two terms of Aznar’s administration no fewer than 64 ETA prisoners serving long sentences were released on precisely the same basis as De Juana Chaos would have been had it not been for fresh charges being brought against him. It is also not the first time that this prisoner has been moved closer to the Basque country, during Aznar’s conversations with ETA many prisoners, including De Juana Chaos, were moved to prisons closer to home as part of a gesture by the government.

The reason why the list of those released after serving only part of their sentence is so noteworthy is that all of the ministers responsible for releasing these prisoners continue to occupy important positions in the PP, and will undoubtedly be present on Saturday's march. The interior ministers responsible for these decisions included current PP secretary general Angel Acebes, and the alleged party leader, Mariano Rajoy. The latter, on his journey through several of the most important government positions, left no other visible footprints; so maybe it is fitting that his period in government should be remembered for the quantity of ETA prisoners that he released? The full list can be found here.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Message In A Bottle

The trainer of Sevilla football club, Juande Ramos, was left unconscious after being hit by a bottle during a cup tie last night against their city rivals, Betis. He had to spend the night under observation in hospital but it appears that there is no serious damage. The match was halted after the incident, it was a game that was preceded by an ugly war of words between the two clubs as Betis attempted to prevent the Sevilla president from attending. A few observations occur to me following this incident:

Football clubs in Spain frequently seem to be run by megalomaniac businessmen with a mental age and maturity that would leave most three year olds feeling a bit superior. The two clubs in Sevilla are excellent examples of this.

The reaction of the Spanish football federation will be very interesting to see. Spain is in the curious situation of having a governing body for the game that is so inept and in the pockets of the member clubs that they had to create a special commission separate from the federation to deal with cases of violence. Fines handed out by the federation itself are rarely more than a few hundred euros, and despite this are almost invariably subjected to appeal by the affected club.

Week after week it's possible to see objects raining down onto football pitches here with no action of any kind being taken to prevent it. The stewards don't act, the police don't act. The clubs in Spain simply refuse to take responsibility for what happens inside their stadiums. What happened in the Sevilla-Betis game is just a bad case of something that is almost routine and almost always goes unpunished.

But then hooliganism is always something that only exists overseas. Perhaps this incident will be the wake-up call that is needed, but I'm not convinced.