Friday, December 26, 2008

Standing On The Equator

It's time for the South of Watford winter break. The destination this time is Ecuador, where I hope to be spending the next three weeks. If that sounds a bit doubtful it's because a combination of documentation issues, the airline we are going with, and the fact the flight is not direct all leave open the possibility that something could go horribly wrong and I might be back at my laptop tomorrow. Whatever happens it promises to be a very long day.

Unfortunately my absence means that I will miss the traditional end of year mass/anti government rally organised by the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, if I understood his speech correctly, the King of Spain is going to lead by example - "tirando del carro" - to drag Spain out of economic crisis. Hardly surprising given that so many members of his family appear to be unemployed. Feliz Año Nuevo!

El Mayor Problema

I hope Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy has had a peaceful Christmas, because next year promises to be anything but relaxing for him. Whether he survives 2009 as PP leader or not depends crucially on two of the three electoral tests that are coming up in the next few months. First will come perhaps the most important of these elections for him, for the regional government of Galicia. The PP lost control here by a very narrow margin last time, so a failure to win back Galicia could be enough on its own to encourage his internal opposition to start mobilising against him. It is also Rajoy's home territory. Galicia's election will be quickly followed by one in the Basque Country, where the PP is not expected to do well in any case; only a complete disaster here would hurt Rajoy. Then come the elections to the European Parliament, where a PP defeat would also be tremendously damaging. The latter may be the election where they do best, given the likely low participation and the generally greater motivation to vote amongst right wing voters.

With any other politician except Rajoy, it might seem surprising that the choice of the main candidate for the European elections has still not been made, the governing PSOE presented their candidate months ago. Mariano has almost as many problems taking a decision as he does with remembering what happened during the government which he formed part of under Aznar. The current PP leader in the European Parliament is Jaime Mayor Oreja, one of the few surviving Aznaristas still in a prominent position. Mayor was very critical of the post election purge in the PP and many observers saw his hand behind the resignation of Maria San Gil in what was yet another attempt to force Rajoy to go. It seems a bit strange that Rajoy would leave him in place, but given that the European Parliament is far away it can be a good place for a party leader to send his critics and rivals. Perhaps he will also choose to apply the Lyndon B Johnson principle; it's better to have your opponents inside the tent pissing out, than on the outside pissing in.

One of the significant threats to the PP vote, apart from Rajoy's uninspiring leadership, comes from ex PSOE member Rosa Diez and her new party, the UPyD. Rajoy himself is said to have described Diez as a left wing leader who takes votes from the right. The second part of that assessment could be correct, given the failure of the PP to rise in the opinion polls despite the economic situation. El Mundo has been doing a good job of promoting Diez recently, naturally any suggestion that they are doing so to try and undermine Rajoy has to be firmly rejected. Diez and UPyD have moved opportunistically to fill spaces that the PP's apparently less strident opposition has left open. Rajoy himself seemed to respond to this recently by returning to the theme of terrorism and the continuing municipal presence in the Basque Country of the illegalised ANV. In doing so he let the genie out of the bottle and in no time it seemed just like the old days as the usual suspects from the hard right ranted on about how the government and ETA were working hand in hand. Realising a bit too late what he had done, Rajoy moved to calm things down by publicly stating that the government was not negotiating with ETA. It was a brief and ugly reminder of what lies just below the surface in the PP.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Espe Pulls Her Christmas Caja

Without wishing to spoil the festive season, or cause temperatures to drop too sharply, I couldn't resist a last post of the year about Mrs Aguirre. Espe always keeps a special place in her heart for those who have defied her at some point, and bides her time until she can take revenge. I wrote a few weeks ago about her attempts to take control of the regional savings bank, Caja Madrid. For a while it looked as if she had been outmanoeuvred by the Caja's president Miguel Blesa and Madrid's mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón. Not so, in one of her last political acts of the year Aguirre moved to change the law governing savings banks in the region and clear the way for her to take control.

As part of her takeover bid, Aguirre has placed some of her people onto the board controlling the bank and interesting appointments they are too. Step forward Angel Acebes, cast out into the political wilderness by Mariano Rajoy and forever associated with the attempts to manipulate the political fallout of the Madrid bombings. Don't worry, he's in good company because also appointed at the same time to one of these cosy positions is Manuel Lamela, whose only significant claim to fame is the vindictive persecution of the Leganés doctors. You could present a plausible case for both of these men spending the rest of their days breaking rocks in the hot sun, it takes an Espe to see the good side of them. Compared to these two, the additional appointment of her deputy's sister-in-law seems like run of the mill political patronage, scarcely worth commenting.

For Aguirre this use of political patronage is the key to her power in the PP. She became president of the Madrid regional government just a few months before the PP was ejected from power at national level. She then turned her administration into a kind of mini Valle de los Caidos for those refugees from Aznar's government who were faced with the awful prospect of having to look for a real job. What she is doing now with Caja Madrid is simply a continuation of that strategy. To some it may seem odd that someone so apparently convinced of the virtues of the free market for everything should spend so much of her time immersed in battles for control over public or semi-public institutions. There's no real contradiction, this confusion of the public good with private interest lies at the heart of her political philosophy.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Give Me The Child And I'll Give You The Man

If anyone needs to reflect on the terrible consequences of a religious education then take a look at this video. These poor innocent children have been trapped in the hands of a brutal, heartless, political sect for years and look how they have ended up. Despite the false smiles, and the robotic repetition of slogans, their hopeful dreams for the future have been shattered.




It All Comes Out In The Wash

Every year, when the results of the Christmas lottery are announced in Spain, there always seems to be a tragic tale to accompany all those joyful scenes of very drunk people celebrating their success. There has to be someone who can't find their lucky ticket to claim their prize in El Gordo. This year we got the "I put my ticket in the washing machine and look what happened" tale which got widely reported yesterday. The lady concerned sobbed as she told her story to the cameras and explained how this would affect her unemployed son and his pregnant wife. She even waved a little plastic bag containing the remains of the lottery ticket. There's only one problem, it seems this little tearjerker was invented by the TV station La Sexta. The biggest winner in the lottery, as usual, was the Spanish government.



Monday, December 22, 2008

A Million Homes For Sale

A new report by the bank BBVA puts the number of new homes in Spain waiting for a buyer at between 800,000 and 1,400,000. They say that it's difficult to estimate the real figure but that it could easily exceed 1 million. As if that wasn't enough over supply, this figure is going to keep increasing as building projects started before the economic crisis are completed.

The determination of the constructors not to reduce their prices too sharply is going to be severely tested in the next couple of years. The BBVA report estimates that Spanish house prices will drop 25% between 2009 and 20011. Those promotors who said they would rather hand over their properties to the banks than decrease the selling price may be forced to reconsider. Does all of this this mean that anyone in Spain who needs a home is going to have one? Of course not.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

We Could Start With The Euribor

I'm not sure exactly what month of the economic crisis we are in, but the refounding of capitalism seems to be taking its time. I haven't seen a single solid proposal yet that tells me that the same factors and agents that caused this crisis won't bring about another identical or worse one in a few years time. So to help the process along I think we can start identifying some targets for action so that at least those who have no responsibility for causing the crisis do not have to bear the full brunt of it.

Candidate number one is the Euribor, this curious rate of interest that is used to control the mortgage interest payments of those Spaniards who have managed to become property owners. The Euribor, as everyone is now finding to their cost, bears surprisingly little relationship to the real rate of interest. People used to think that their enemy was the European Central Bank, as the Eurozone attempted to keep interest rates high to try and cap inflation. Not so, now that interest rates have fallen fast and there is no reason to imagine they will rise in the near future, it turns out that the Euribor still comes close to doubling the interest payments that people have to give to the banks. It's similar to the way in which people still believe that it's OPEC controlling the price of oil, when in reality its the Let's Make Money Out Of Betting On Oil Prices Casino that runs the show.

The Euribor is supposed to be the interest rate at which banks lend to each other, quite how it became the rate which banks use to rip off their own customers is not clear. Now that banks don't trust each other or anyone else, this has the very convenient windfall effect of keeping the Euribor high and along with that the banks receive a windfall premium from those who are struggling to survive the same crisis that the same banks did so much to bring about! If you want to borrow money at the moment you can be sure it will be at Euribor + rates of interest, the "+" will probably be quite substantial. Deposits are not treated in the same way, they are often based on what the banks jokingly call the "cost of money". In other words, the Euribor bonus is for the banks only. So, what possible justification is there for banks to charge their own customers such a high rate of interest, apart from massively increasing profitability at every mortgage payer's expense. Let's get rid of it for bank loans to their own customers. It's a start, any other suggestions?


Monday, December 15, 2008

Zero Tolerance In Madrid's Mountains

This weekend in Madrid has been as cold as any I can remember in recent years. After what I have now taken to calling Grim Saturday, when it snowed a little in the centre of the city and rained the rest of the day, it didn't seem like a very promising idea to spend Sunday in the mountains outside of Madrid. If I'd known anyone prepared to suggest a cordero asado for lunch followed by a lazy afternoon cinema session then the decision would quickly have gone the other way. The snow was already around us as we left the city limits yesterday morning and headed for Cercedilla, one of the easiest points for accessing the sierra. Even parking wasn't easy, the normal place to leave a car was out of bounds to those not carrying chains for the wheels.

Despite all of this, we had a fantastic day. The really bad weather seemed to be concentrating on the highest peaks, and we made our way through the snowy woods in reasonably comfortable conditions. The seasons make all the difference, and a landscape with which I'm very familiar in spring or summer looks entirely different with snow deep enough to reach the top of your boots or higher. The branches of the pine trees were bending under the weight of snow, and every rocky outcrop with water passing over it had its formation of long, jagged icicles. On the way down we were finally caught by a blizzard and the wind drove the snow into our faces for about 15-20 minutes, leaving a legacy of icy crystals behind it. It didn't matter, once we got low enough the freezing wind was left behind and we had that great Spanish winter invention, a steaming hot caldo, in the restaurant down at the bottom.

A couple of weeks ago, when the weather was not quite so severe, we did another great walk in La Pedriza. This is another area that takes on a completely new look when the huge granite boulders have a layer of snow. I used to think this part of the sierra would be out of bounds in wet or icy conditions, but the variety of walks you can do makes it an option for all weathers as there are easy walks in the woods for those who reject the idea of having to use their hands to get over some of the rockier parts. This time around we took the walk more or less to the limit where danger becomes a factor as the ice on the rocks made scrambling a risky option. The reward is the clarity of cold late autumn days and we still got enough sun to have a 15 minute lunch stop on one of the better view points. Today in Madrid the sun is out again but even in mid morning it was still only 2 degrees in the street. I think I'll go back to Germany for a few days, a bratwurst and glühwein in the Christmas market makes the cold a bit easier to bear. The funny thing is that when I tell people there how things have been in Madrid this weekend I'm sure I will get looks of disbelief; the idea of freezing conditions in Spain isn't accepted by most northern Europeans who only know the country from summer visits.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Spain At A Glance....Newspaper Readership




Charts code courtesy of soitu.es


The truncated names are for La Vanguardia and El Periódico. These are the latest figures for newspapers with a general news outlook, otherwise the football dominated Marca would be the one with the highest figure. These are not sales figures, they are based on studies of what people read. The full data is available here. All the different media groups like to pick the most favourable interpretation possible from the EGM data. it's a bit like those elections where every party declares victory. Looking at the trends compared to previous figures, there are two key observations to make about the current situation in Spain. Firstly, there is little sign of much movement between different newspapers - the battles between different media groups are not having too much impact at the moment. Secondly, the predictions about the imminent end of printed newspaper readership as Internet news coverage increases are still premature.

Despite the reasonably healthy figures for newspaper readership there is a significant crisis emerging on the Spanish media scene. The main reason for this is to do with the decline in revenues from advertising. In part the crisis is due to the impact of economic problems on the newer media model that saw the growth of free newspapers sustained entirely by advertising revenues. Some of these free papers are already cutting back by chopping their editions in the smaller cities. However, it is also where Internet has really made its mark as the available income from publicity is spread amongst an ever increasing number of media companies and websites. Couple this with the economic recession and that explains why big selling papers like El País are dedicating significant space to trying to attract new advertisers. The Grupo Prisa, owners of El País, have significant debt problems and have been trying for some time to offload their Digital + satellite television platform. Their attempts to expand heavily into the Latin American market have probably not helped. Their problems are a reflection of a bigger problem that is really going to bite hard as the economic situation worsens testing the ability of each media group to adapt successfully to the changing face of news delivery.



Friday, December 12, 2008

The Lynch Mob

The insults have been flying quite freely between Spain's politicians in the last couple of weeks. First we had a storm kicked up by Getafe's mayor Pedro Castro who asked why there were still so many "tontos de los cojones" prepared to vote for the right. Then we got Joan Tardá of Esquerra Republicana who yelled "Viva la república, muerte al Borbón" in a meeting that was definitely not commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Spanish constitution. Both statements provoked loud protests from the Partido Popular and their media friends. Santa Esperanza de Mumbai is leading a boycott against Castro, who presides the federation of local municipalities. Others clamoured for Tardá to be taken to court for wishing death on the monarchy. Castro's choice of words may have been unwise, but to be fair at least there was an attempt at sociological investigation behind the statement. Particularly if you take into account the way the right operates in Madrid. Meanwhile Tardá's statement has been excused as a historical reference - he was talking about Felipe V, not about the current incumbent. The PP's indignation at what he said wasn't enough to stop them adding their support to an ERC sponsored motion rejecting the government's budget a few days ago.

Now let's look at the other side of the coin. Yesterday the PP's honorary president, Manuel Fraga, was quoted as saying that what the regional nationalists needed was to be hung somewhere. Pretty sweet isn't it? Don Manuel has actually softened in his political positions a bit over the years, after all he was a prominent member of a regime that preferred either the garotte or simply shooting its opponents and leaving them in shallow graves by the roadside. So credit where credit's due. At this rate of progress he should emerge in the centre right of the political spectrum shortly before his 150th birthday, an event which cannot be completely ruled out given his apparent resilience. No protests from the PP over that moderate statement, just as there are no protests when Carlos Fabra calls his opponents "hijos de puta" or threatens to piss on the headquarters of Izquierda Unida if he has another of his seemingly very frequent wins on the lottery. Even Santa Espe could be questioned over her description of those criticising her quick exit from Mumbai as "bellacos y miserables". That's not nice at all, coming from such a holy person.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rajoy's Christmas Message

With all this talk of crisis it's time for a bit of alegria. Take it away Mariano....



Via Netoratón 3.0

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Beware Of Ultra Violent Rage

Tuesday night’s Champions League match between Atlético Madrid and Olympique Marseille promises to be a tense affair, something which has little to do with what happens on the pitch. A court in Madrid this week sentenced an Olympique fan to 3.5 years in prison for offences allegedly committed in the previous game between the two clubs. The supporter involved, Santos Mirasierra (yes he is of Spanish descent), is a member of one of the groups of “ultras” who follow the French club.

The sentence Mirasierra was given is almost worth using as a case study in how the law can be misused by a zealous prosecution and complacent judges who find demanding proof of guilt to be a bit tiresome. The only offence which they could say with any certainty that he was involved in was pushing a policeman. The incident took place during a clumsy and aggressive action by the Spanish police to try and remove a banner from a group of Olympique fans. The police justified their action on the grounds that the banner contravened UEFA regulations. Strangely, UEFA disagreed with this judgement and even went so far as to impose a punishment on Atlético because of it. Of course, in standard UEFA fashion, what started as a punishment involving the club playing two games far from their own stadium ended up as a one game sanction played at home behind closed doors. The punishment was incomprehensible to Atleti fans and I certainly wouldn’t stand up for UEFA’s consistency in dealing with such issues, but the sentence against Mirasierra smacks of a judicial revenge for the fuss made over the incidents that night.

Apart from anything else, the trial of Santos Mirasierra introduced the interesting concept of co-authorship. What this means in the context of his sentence is that if you are in the vicinity of a group of people throwing chairs at the police and it turns out that you are the only person arrested then you are guilty of what everybody else did. Regardless of the absence of any evidence proving your involvement in the events. It’s a fantastic catch-all concept and it almost puts me off the idea of going to any more Spanish football games, where outbreaks of throwing all sorts of objects onto the pitch are distressingly common. Ah, but there’s the catch, when it happens in a purely Spanish game neither police nor club seem to be in the least bit worried. Indeed the ultras of some Spanish clubs are amongst the most pampered of supporters, often enjoying a close relationship with those in charge. Only this week we have had reports of how Real Madrid president Ramon Calderón enjoyed the vociferous support of a group of ultras in what promised to be a difficult club annual meeting.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Walk In The Black Forest

Having reunited my camera with its cable, I can post some photos from my weekend trip to Freiburg a few weeks ago. We took the Schauinsland cable car that begins a few kilometres outside of the city, and which goes up high into the Black Forest. The night before had been very cold in Freiburg, and the evidence was on the ground in the forest itself.



Despite the cold start to the day, it was very clear and sunny and not far from where the cable car ends you can find a route taking you deeper inside the forest.



Such a fine day made for great views over the surrounding countryside.



In this image the line in the background is that of the high peaks of the Swiss Alps, including well known mountains like Jungfrau and the Eiger. If they are not very clear, that's because they are around 150 km away from where I took the photo. So they are far away, not small.


This is the cathedral square in Freiburg itself.



The cathedral itself has some interesting gargoyles and sculptures, don't stand under this one when its raining.




Friday, December 05, 2008

That's No Way To Stop A Train

The latest action this week by ETA, the execution of businessman Ignacio Uria, goes beyond demonstrating the ever more clear futility of the group's existence. Uria was killed because his company was working on the extension of Spain's high speed rail network to the Basque cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian. What is known in the rest of the country as the AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) had already been retitled for its Basque section as the TAV (Tren de Alta Velocidad). This rebadging does little to comfort those who regard a fast train link to Madrid as a connection to the heart of the colonialist beast.

There are good reasons for not feeling comfortable with the way in which high speed train travel has developed in Spain. The very fast connections between cities come with an environmental cost and the withdrawal of other trains that served intermediate towns on the route. Personally I think its great that I can get to Barcelona from Madrid in 2.5 hours but it comes at a cost that some people can't necessarily afford. The straight flat line that 300 km per hour trains require means that obstacles in the way have to be somehow removed. Perhaps if the train went at 200 km per hour it could just go round rather than through some of the natural landscapes affected by the new lines.

The problem now for anyone who wants to make such reasoned arguments in the Basque Country is that ETA has charged into the fray by shooting a contractor. The great fault line that runs through many of the arguments justifying terrorism is that those who claim to act in the name of the "people" are not inclined to let those same people decide how to campaign on an issue. Instead they assume the right to decide for themselves. Anyone opposing the project without supporting violence against those working on it will now find that their arguments are overshadowed by ETA's decision to try and dictate the shape of opposition to the new link.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

When The Music's Over

Following the killing of an 18 year old in a Madrid disco a couple of weeks ago, the municipal government has suddenly launched a crackdown on a number of venues throughout the city. The club where the killing took place was apparently in breach of all sorts of regulations, but continued to operate for years without any problems. It seems that several other venues are also in the same situation and operate in this very Madrileño twilight zone of licensing restrictions. With the ongoing "Guateque" corruption scandal still working its way through the legal system, the latest events simply underline that the whole system of licensing bars and clubs in the city works in an arbitrary and opaque fashion. Which is of course what made it so easy for bribery to become an easy route to getting your papers in order or keeping them that way. Some places can operate for years competely illegally while others are never able to get started.

At least two of the venues closed recently, Riviera and Macumba, are regular live music venues as well as being nightclubs. Several significant concerts have had to be cancelled as a result of a crackdown which appears to have nothing to do with the incident that sparked it. Apart from anything else it emphasises just how badly off Madrid is for medium sized concert venues - a situation which together with geographical factors helps to account for the dearth of concerts in the city compared to Barcelona. The Riviera, with its plastic palm trees, may not be the ideal venue for live music but take it away and there is really nowhere else in the capital city for those rock concerts that attract 1500-2000 people. Madrid's administration is now trying to (ab)use this situation to promote the privatisation of the licensing service - the best possible way to ensure that transparency and control of corruption will simply never happen.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Let's Send Aznar To Cuba

I suppose that the revelations this weekend concerning the Aznar government's complicity with the transport of prisoners to Guantánamo have not come as a great surprise to most people. Even so, it's nice to have the confirmation. What has also become clear is that the then government was so convinced of the morality of what it was doing that it even had some cute little lies prepared in the event that the Spanish people found out what was being done in their name.

The current administration has denied any knowledge of Aznar's collaboration with the US on this issue. The denials are not very convincing. There has been a long running judicial investigation into the flights that are said to have stopped over in Spain as they transported prisoners between various countries and the prison camp in Guantánamo. The evidence emerging from that investigation suggests that such flights continued after the change of government in 2004. Zapatero's government has turned their back on that investigation, and done very little to cooperate.

The Partido Popular has come out with their now standard cut and paste response that any attempt to talk about an issue other than the economy is simply a diversion. Mariano Rajoy is still being affected by serious memory problems about the decisions taken by a government in which he was a senior figure. I laughed when I saw them complaining about official documents being leaked, Aznar boasted loudly after leaving office that he had copies of all official documents relating to the Madrid bombings whilst the incoming government found that the originals appeared to have been shredded. It seems he didn't manage to carry away everything about his term in office.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Barefoot In The Taj

I'm not sure whether being given a copy of El Mundo counts as an advantage of flying with Iberia, but at least you don't have to pay for it. Today's edition carried a pearl of a column by Federico Jiménez Losantos in which he took the left and Catalan nationalists to task for criticising Esperanza Aguirre's extremely hasty exit from Mumbai last week; leaving behind virtually all of her delegation. Losantos went so far as to declare that Aguirre had behaved in a dignified way.

There are several words that come to mind to describe Espe's return to Madrid, but dignified isn't one of them. Theatrical and ridiculous are on the list. So spontaneous was her appearance before the press that her entire regional government and part of her party's national leadership had somehow found time to attend the event. Never one to let a camera or a microphone pass without making some sort of statement, she was so keen to sieze the moment that she didn't even bother to change clothes between landing and appearing at the press conference. Clearly she had decided that her odd and slightly comical appearance would help to add more dramatic effect to the story she had to tell.

That Losantos and El Mundo should be so loyal to Aguirre is hardly surprising and is not just a question of ideolgical affinity, as was made clear by a court decision that also came at the end of last week. This ruling declared that all the digital TV licences awarded by Aguirre's administration a few years ago were illegal. Given the fuss that the El Mundo/Libertad Digital axis had been making about Cataluña's recent decisions on media concessions, it might seem surprising that they have no comment on Madrid's methodology. Of course Madrid doesn't bother with setting up commissions to govern the awarding of media licences, there's no need for such formalities. Nor is there any need to publish the criteria on which the decision is based. Plurality of opinion is fully respected by ensuring that all of those who pledge their political loyalty to the Condesa get their share of the pie. So El Mundo, Libertad Digital and other right wing media groups were all handsomely rewarded, without any of them necessarily meeting the criteria for receiving a franchise.

The same edition of El Mundo carried another revealing story about a planned meeting between Alberto Ruiz Gallardón and the Pope. The meeting was all set to go ahead until Gallardón let it be known that he was going to raise the subject of Losantos and the Church owned Cope radio station that the ranting one works for. All of a sudden the Church in Spain decided that such a meeting was no longer desirable and it was abruptly cancelled. El Mundo thinks this was a good idea, after all if the Pope was to hear about what his organisation gets up to then he might lose interest in the job.


Friday, November 28, 2008

A Hungry Man Is An Angry Man

Another translation triumph. This item at Malaprensa tells us that Antena 3 carried footage the other day of an interviewed tourist trapped at Bangkok Airport saying "I am angry and sad". Translated by a top Antena 3 expert this emerged as "Tengo hambre y sed".

Pharaohs Prefer Cats

I'm not a big animal lover myself, but even I was a bit shocked by Madrid's latest measure against those who don't clean up behind their dogs. The maximum fine until now for letting your dog choose the middle of the pavement or the entrance to someone's house as a toilet is a reasonably harmless €90, and I wonder whether anyone has ever been fined. That's about to change and the new maximum goes up to a staggering €1500. At this price it almost becomes worth hiring a servant to walk behind the animal with a cushioned heated potty. It's all part of the consequences of Alberto Ruiz Gallardón's particular approach to tax and spend politics. In order to protect everything except essential services and to pay off a debt where the interest alone costs €750,000 per day, the city is now trying to raise money in any way it can. The property tax has risen, people are going to be fined for not recycling properly, and now whatever the Spanish equivalent of Fido or Rover is will get their owner into a bigger mess than the street they shit on.

What you really need when faced with inconsiderate behaviour is a polite campaign of civic education from your fellow citizens. Take, for example, the MEMPEC campaign - aimed at those users of public transport who choose to share with the rest of the passengers the music which they are listening to on their mobile phones. Via Las Penas del Agente Smith.


Oh, what does MEMPEC mean? Métete el móvil por el culo. Or SYPUYA in English.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Patriotas Sin Fronteras

I was in the UK at the weekend, and both in the press and on TV I noticed an extensive advertising by the Banco de Santander. Nothing unusual about that, now that the Santander has increased still further its interests in the British banking sector. What really caught my attention was that the advertising was based around images of a well known Formula One racing driver....Lewis Hamilton! I wonder how many of those Spaniards whose irrational hatred for Hamilton is so forcefully expressed have accounts with the Spanish bank that is helping to make him richer?

The amount of corporate advertising directly linking itself to sporting events seems to be much greater in Spain, there always seems to be something in the press from a company congratulating the underwater synchronised hockey team for their latest achievements. I always find these adverts by multinational companies like Coca Cola in support of "la selección" quite funny because I assume they produce probably identical advertisements for every country that is competing in the event. I suppose its only to be expected, many of the most highly rewarded sports stars soon find their own patriotism doesn't survive the test of paying taxes in their country of origin.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Civil Unrest

It's almost predictable isn't it? The moment Maria Esperanza turns up in India the shooting starts! I can understand the reaction, she has a similar effect when she gets into a helicopter - just ask Mariano. According to El País she plans on visiting a computing company, presumably to congratulate them on how poorly paid their staff are. Of course there are no such companies in the Madrid region, La Lideresa is forced to travel half the world in the midst of an economic crisis just to say something like "that's a nice flatscreen monitor you've got".

Gloss Skating

Those of you in Spain who are starting to shiver as the cold weather works its way south might be reassured to know that exiles like me have been putting up with it for a bit longer. My plane back to Germany from the UK on Sunday night left significantly later than planned because of the snow that was falling on Frankfurt airport. It snowed again the following night. Just to show that Spain has no monopoly on bizarre translations there was a warning sign placed in the morning at the exits in my hotel; it said "Dear guest, please be careful. It is glossy". Wondering what could be meant by this I almost slipped into the ice covered pond just outside the door.

Monday, November 24, 2008

From The Cold War To The Energy War

Not the first energy war, obviously, but as we're on the dawn of a new era let's move on. I wouldn't normally post about one company buying a share in another, it's not the sort of thing that generally interests me very much. The case of the Russian oil company Lukoil attempting to become the owner of around 30% of Repsol is a bit different, as political considerations vie for supremacy with economic ones and the potential entertainment value rises. The fear that it all forms part of an evil Kremlin plot by the "Russian bear" to control Europe's energy supplies has inevitably surfaced in the last few days. The fact that Lukoil itself is partially owned by US interests doesn't seem to affect this perception.

At the heart of the proposed deal lie the problems of debt facing Spanish construction companies. The case of Sacyr-Vallehermoso is particularly grim, they owe several times their stock market worth to the banks. It's a staggering level of debt that can't even be temporarily kept at bay by handing over newly finished houses to the banks; a solution that is being adopted by other troubled companies. So instead they are seeking to offload their 20% stake in Repsol in order to at least reduce that debt burden and keep the company going. If the deal goes ahead Lukoil won't actually be paying a penny to acquire their stake. Instead they'll just take over the debt that Sacyr incurred in the process of "buying" their share of Repsol. This was done back in the not so distant days when the construction companies were awash with money and developed grandiose expansion plans into other sectors such as utilities or energy.

I wonder just how many of Spain's ardent free marketeers will be screaming for government intervention over this one? Talking of the devil, also related to Sacyr's situation was a curious court appearance last week by the former Partido Popular general secretary Francisco Alvarez Cascos. Around the election campaign in March, there were a spate of rumours originating inside the PP that Sacyr was already bankrupt but had been persuaded by Zapatero to defer the announcement until after the election so as not to adversely affect the campaign. These rumours were spread by SMS text message and one such message sent to a friend of Cascos was found to have come from a phone belonging to one of his companies. Nothing to do with him you understand.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Garzón Throws In The Towel

Baltasar Garzón seems to have abruptly given up in the case he initiated over the victims of Franco's repression. This follows an emergency judicial session held a couple of weeks ago which led to progress on reopening some of the mass graves of the victims being suspended. The judges put aside minor issues such as terrorism cases or the massive Marbella corruption trial to hold their special hearing at the request of prosecutors determined that the case should not go any further. Garzón has now decided the case should be dealt with by local courts in each area. Opinion seems to be split on the move, some observers seem to think it was his only option to keep the issue open, others believe that it will kill the initiative. Where this leaves issues such as the move to open the grave of Federico García Lorca is open to question. The genie is still out of the bottle, and interestingly Garzón has now raised the issue of children who were taken away from their parents and "adopted" by Franco supporters. It's a crime that is not covered by the amnesty law, and raises a clear parallel with similar cases in South America.

The president of the Spanish parliament, Jose Bono, provoked an extraordinary row over his acceptance of a PP proposal to put up a plaque in honour of a nun who was persecuted during the Spanish Civil War. Bono, who would doubtless be horrified at any similar proposal to honour victims of the Republican side in the Congreso, has started a rebellion in the ranks of the PSOE. He was overheard the other day calling his colleagues "hijos de puta", which suggests that the use of the expression is not just confined to Carlos Fabra and the province of Castellón. In the end the proposal had to be dropped. Switching seamlessly to a surreal parallel universe, Esperanza Aguirre claimed last week that her party had nothing to be ashamed of over the past because Franco was a Socialist! So now the truth finally emerges, he started the civil war because the liberal pinkos running the Republican government refused his request to make the Internationale the national anthem. Of course, he moved a tiny bit towards the right in his later years.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Bank Robbers

The ongoing feud between Esperanza Aguirre and Alberto Ruiz Gallardón reminds me occasionally of one of those bar brawls in a Western. All of a sudden it escapes the confines of the bar and spills out onto the street. At the moment the fighting is not taking place directly inside the Partido Popular, nor is it even one of those frequent disagreements between the Gallardón controlled Ayuntamiento and Aguirre's regional Comunidad. Aguirre is determined to add Caja Madrid, the regional savings bank, to the list of institutions which she can use for the purposes of political influence and patronage. Gallardón seeks to block her and the battle is taking place over the presidency of the bank.

The current president of Caja Madrid, Miguel Blesa, got the job in the first place because he was a friend of José Maria Aznar. Sorry, let me rephrase that; he got the job because of his extensive financial experience and impressive curriculum. However, the presidents of the cajas are not permanent appointees and Aguirre is now seeking to bring Blesa's reign to an end. You would have thought that any friend of Aznar's would also be a friend of Espe's but it seems that Blesa has offended the Condesa by refusing to allow the bank to be used as a comfortable refuge for the likes of Angel Acebes and the other under employed PP hardliners who have been cast out of the party leadership. Gallardón has given his full support to Blesa who for the moment is holding onto his post. Perhaps Aguirre also wants the bank because she is experiencing financial difficulties again, are we back to the pauper president already?

Meanwhile, one of Gallardón's latest moves has been to use Madrid's money to sponsor the basketball team of Georgetown University. Is that in Madrid? Not really, it's not even close. There is however an Aznar connection here as well because this university was his destination during his brief career as a visting lecturer following his exit from government. In honour of the moustachioed crusader's recognised fluency in English, the university is now almost always referred to in the Spanish blogosphere as "Yorchtaun". Prior to leaving government Aznar managed to ensure that some government cash headed in Yorchtaun's direction and now Gallardón is following suit. Any suggestion that this is because Mrs Aznar is his deputy must be firmly rejected. Neighbourhood sports facilities in Madrid are being denied investment because of the city's drastic financial crisis whilst cash is easily found for sponsoring sports teams in far off lands of which we know almost too much. Maybe he borrowed it from Caja Madrid?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Izquierda Unida - Missing In Action

At times like this, with the established certainties on the economy crumbling in the face of the current crisis, you would hope that those who have a different political vision might step forward to make their case. Sadly, Izquierda Unida (IU) - the third national party in terms of votes in Spain - doesn't seem to be ready to meet the challenge. Following a disastrous general election result which saw their parliamentary presence reduced to just 2 members, IU has been facing a very difficult situation. Their conference held this weekend doesn't seem to have resolved those difficulties.

The problem is largely historical, IU was forged out of an attempt by the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) to form an alliance with other sectors of the left outside of the social democratic PSOE. The PCE always envisaged this alliance as being one that they would control, a vision that has led to a steady leakage over the years of those who find that their voices will never be heard. The federation is currently split between three broad groupings, those loyal to the PCE leadership, supporters of the positions of outgoing national coordinator Gaspar Llamazares, and those who represent a third way independent of the two other groupings. The voting at the weekend reflected the stalemate between these factions, with the PCE drawing the largest vote but without achieving a majority.

Llamazares himself came from within the PCE, but took the federation in a direction that his party's national leadership rejected. He appeared to understand the need to reach out to other social movements and attempted to make the concept of a coalition mean more than just a series of mini planets orbiting around a PCE sun. The PCE leadership holds this strategy responsible for the decline in votes, but in reality it's unlikely that any other strategy would have made a significant difference. Apart from the longer term decline in support for a left alternative to the PSOE, the latter party grabbed many votes this year that they would not normally get because of the fear that a possible return to power of the PP provoked amongst the voters of the left.

Whether it's the reality or not, the impression that many people will get from the weekend is that of a seriously divided party. None of the attempts to reach consensus over the leadership issue were successful, although the fact that serious attempts took place to find agreement suggests that all may not be lost. A declining PCE has always regarded IU as being its property and still cannot come to terms with the idea of a genuine coalition where it does not decide the political direction to impose via a preliminary caucus. It is at the same time the single largest provider of members, and the single largest problem that IU has. Particularly on the economy, but also on other issues, there is clear political space to the left of the PSOE. IU's problem is going to be getting its act together in time to present that alternative.

The Summit Industry Is Booming

While our noble and wise leaders were "reinventing" capitalism I decided to escape to the Black Forest for the weekend. On returning I find a world that looks very much the same. The main conclusion of the summit on the economic crisis seems to be....to hold another summit in a few months time. The culprits for a slow recovery have also been identified, if those poor countries who refused to accept the monstrously unfair Doha trade agreement continue to reject it they can be accused of holding back recovery. Meanwhile I don't see anything to suggest that we won't be back after the recession for yet another round of (publicly subsidised) hedge fund fuelled casino madness.

Meanwhile Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero got his picture taken at the White House shaking the hand of the caretaker. Having made it to this gathering, the Spanish government's main concern seems to be to ensure that they get invited to the next one as well. Zapatero confidently declared that this was not a problem because he trusted the word of Nicolas Sarkozy. If that's not a risky strategy I don't know what is. I would post some Black Forest photos but I'm hampered by a slight technical problem; the camera with the photos is here with me in Germany but the cable that connects it to my laptop failed to leave Madrid.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hunting De Juana

The former ETA prisoner, Iñaki de Juana Chaos, who was released from prison in August is still facing the prospect of having to return to jail. De Juana Chaos is supposed to appear before a Spanish judge today to declare on a possible charge of praising terrorism. The case notionally concerns a letter that was read out at a homage to him following his release from prison. I use the word "notionally", because in reality the judicial persecution owes far more to the circus organised by right wing media and pressure groups in their attempts to convert De Juana Chaos into a symbol of their real battle; the one against Zapatero's government and the Basque peace process.

The letter in question contains no serious indications of a crime having been committed, the case depends very heavily on contestable interpretations of words. Worse than that, the police don't even have any evidence that De Juana Chaos actually wrote it, and he did not attend the event where it was read. Details schmetails, if a judge wants to send him to prison for it then that is where he will go. However, first they have to find him and despite reports placing him in the Irish Republic or in Belfast, the former prisoner has made no public appearances since leaving Spain. The likely consequence of his failure to declare is that a detention order will be issued via Interpol and no doubt huge resources will then be completely wasted to try and locate him and force his return to Spain. He may attract little sympathy, but this pointless persecution is trampling key principles. The idea that someone can be maintained indefinitely in prison just because a few over powerful pressure groups demand it, and judges have the power to do it, is a serious problem; and not just for cases involving terrorism.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Pisando Nieve

I found time during my brief return to Madrid this weekend to check out the results of the recent cold spell in central Spain. It's unusual for so much snow to fall on the mountains of Guadarrama before winter even begins, and despite the bright sunny weather on Saturday there was still plenty left. Up above the clouds on either side of the sierra the views were perfect.



We took the train up to Cotos and then the route of the lagoons lying beneath Peñalara. This takes you around the peak until you get to the Laguna de los Pajaros, still mostly frozen even on a relatively warm day like this.



I chickened out of the ascent above the lagoon that takes you up the tougher side of Peñalara, plenty of people seemed to be doing it but the more sensible ones wore crampons on their boots. We got high enough to take this picture before turning back.



Zapatero's Afghan Dilemma

The deaths of two Spanish soldiers yesterday in Afghanistan have brought that country back into the headlines in the Spanish press. Although the almost 800 Spanish soldiers stationed in the country are not close to the main battlegrounds, there has been a steady succession of attacks against them and yesterday's deaths are not the first fatalities the Spanish have suffered. Domestically the Spanish presence in Afghanistan has not caused the government any significant problems, helped by the lack of direct involvement in the fighting. The government presents the Spanish contribution as a humanitarian mission, although it is clear that foreign troops in that country are embroiled in a war with no visible end in sight.

Despite having hailed the election of Barack Obama as US president, Spain's prime minister will not be looking forward to discussing the Afghan situation with him. Obama is said to want to increase the number of occupying troops in Afghanistan and will undoubtedly be looking to other countries to increase their presence. This is something which Spain has already resisted before. Obama seems to believe that a troop surge is going to deal with the situation, whilst many of those with actual involvement in the country now see the war as unwinnable; hence the quiet negotiations that are taking place in the background with the Taliban and other parties. Meanwhile, the death rate amongst civilians seems to count for as little as it did in Iraq; Afghanistan is the original disaster of the "war on terror".


Sunday, November 09, 2008

Navarra's New Party

Following their dispute over the vote on the national budget last month, it does look as if the split between the Partido Popular and their Navarran partners of the UPN is really taking place. Let nobody accuse the PP of being behind the times in anything except their politics, they have now unveiled a true Web 2.0 virtual headquarters in Navarra; it exists only on Internet. You would have thought that a party with such close connections to the construction industry would have managed a slightly more solid base than this, but perhaps UPN still has more influence on the bricks and mortar distribution in the region. A handful of senior UPN figures have already deserted to the Populares de Navarra and the point of no return is probably not far off. UPN leader Miguel Sanz has described the deserters as being from the extreme right and Opus Dei, which may possibly be true but he never objected to their presence whilst he had their support!

The newly formed division of the PP has more serious problems than the question of their headquarters or their still meagre support. They have already got themselves into a political mess over a constitutional clause which theoretically permits Navarra to be incorporated into the Basque Country. You would have thought that the PP would simply have opposed the existence of such a clause, but anything which smacks of a change to the Spanish constitution is now anathema to the party which originally opposed the entire document. So instead they have proclaimed their support for self-determination, by stating that the Navarran people can decide their future freely in a referendum. Sounds perfectly reasonable, but it hardly fits with the general position of the PP on such issues does it? Think Basque Country, and think Ibarretxe referendum. For the Basques to vote on their political future is illegal and anti-constitutional, for the Navarrans to do so is a legitimate expression of free will. The PP has attempted to excuse the evident contradictions of their position by claiming that Navarra could vote to be part of any other comunidad, presumably they could vote to link up with their very distant cousins in Sevilla. You are now entering the Comunidad Autonoma de Navarralucia.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Dial R For Recession

Spain is not yet officially in recession, that only comes when you have had two consecutive quarters of negative growth. However, the expectation is now that the recession will be officially declared in the new year as the last quarter has already given us a negative growth figure, and there is no reason to think that the one that began in October will be any better. Gloomy predictions have been made about unemployment reaching 15% next year as the crisis really starts to bite.

Politically, the economic downturn isn’t yet producing the kind of anti-government backlash that Mariano Rajoy and the Partido Popular are desperately hoping for. The latest opinion polls published this week showed the two major parties exactly level, which is an improvement for the PP on the election result but which is worse than a previous poll which showed them starting to edge ahead of the government. The PP’s level of support in the polls is a bit lower than that which they achieved in the general election, meaning that the voters who have deserted the government are not turning to Rajoy as the alternative. The government may benefit from it becoming clear just how international the crisis has become, and has at least given the impression of being a bit more active in recent weeks.

One beneficiary, if the poll in Público is accurate, is the UPD - Spain's newest nationalist anti-nationalist party. Stop me if this gets confusing. Público's data showed UPD ahead of Izquierda Unida although when you are dealing with figures of around 4% support then the margin of error could be significant. Based on the only electoral evidence we have so far, UPD's programme of rolling back regional autonomy in Spain is most popular in the Villa de Madrid. Meanwhile the employers association has criticised measures designed to alleviate the problems of the unemployed, claiming that it's the companies that should be paid to get rid of their workers. They seem to be unaware that all of our money is already tied up propping up the banks.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

George, We've Found Him!

Oh no, sorry, it's only his son. Never mind. It appears that Omar Osama Bin Laden is claiming political asylum in Spain.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

If Flags Could Talk

Significantly more interesting than the Queen of Spain's opinions on all sorts of topics has been the political reaction from the major parties here. A pact of silence has been imposed both by the governing PSOE and the opposition Partido Popular. I don't know how many republicans there are in the PSOE's parliamentary party, but all their representatives received a text message after the controversy hit the headlines telling them that the party would not comment on declarations by members of the royal family.

On the PP's side the pact was broken by Esteban González Pons who suggested that the monarchy was like the flag, and that flags don't make declarations! Personally, I believe that if flags could talk most of them would be every bit as reactionary as the royal family seems to be. In any case, we now know that what the royal palace described in their statement as a private conversation was in fact a series of no fewer than 15 separate meetings between the Queen and the author of the book - preceded by a questionnaire containing over 600 questions! Pre-publication copies of the book were sent to the royal palace and the title was even changed on the palace's suggestion. No objections were made to the content of the book itself, and a delighted publisher wasted no time in getting it issued.

As an interesting aside I read yesterday in the press that Sofía was questioned about whether any members of her family were freemasons, an important issue when the writer of the book is a supporter of the extremist Catholic sect Opus Dei. Apparently, Sofía denied that any of her immediate relatives were masons, but acknowledged that there was one in the family. I think this is a reference to Prince Philip, who is known to have a bit of a taste for rolling up his trouser leg and inventing funny handshakes. We were also treated to some of the Queen's earlier declarations about Franco's dictatorship, which she apparently described as a "dictablanda" rather than a dictadura. Hardly a surprise if you happen to be the wife of Franco's chosen successor, I imagine they rarely felt the full force of the dictatorship. Those who are still being dug out of roadside graves around Spain would probably not have shared her opinion.


Saturday, November 01, 2008

I Say You Chaps, Let's Rock!

A curious video resulting from the latest initiative by the youth wing of the Partido Popular in the Basque Country. The political message seems to be “never mind the politics, enjoy the music”, but this performance by the band Pignoise serves more as a handy “spot the pijo” guide. The obligatory, but completely uncoordinated, clapping that the PP’s yoof section maintain throughout suggests that their true musical tastes perhaps lie elsewhere. Apart from the contrast between the appearance of the band and their audience, it’s amusing to see how the clapping suddenly picks up again each time the camera pans around.




Via escolar.net

Spain Stunned By "Queen Not A Leftie" Claim

Spain is trying to recover from the revelation this week that Queen Sofia is not left wing. One observer, struggling to hold back tears, remarked that the Queen had always seemed so nice as she comforted accident victims by saying “I hope you get better soon dear”. Now, all of a sudden, it appears that she is behaving like a hereditary monarch. Rumours that her relatives fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War are also being rapidly reassessed.

The Queen, who comes from the same family as Britain’s famously open minded Prince Philip, is said to be bemused by the impact of her remarks. She is quite happy for homosexuals to do what they want as long as they do it somewhere else, women who have abortions will burn in hell and a failure to teach religion in schools may even lead to some misguided pupils accepting the theory of evolution. So what’s the fuss about?

The Royal Family has issued a statement claiming that her remarks were made in private and that their subsequent publication in a widely publicised book coinciding with her 70th birthday was down to a misunderstanding. The incident follows last year’s equally shocking news that the King, having given full consideration to the other alternatives, had reached the conclusion that the monarchy is a good thing.

Salud y Republica. A brilliant front page from yesterday’s Público.




Thursday, October 30, 2008

The View From The Street

The cars with cameras attached to the roof were spotted several months ago cruising the streets of major Spanish cities. Now Google’s Street View application has emerged in Spain, at least for Madrid, Barcelona, and a couple of the other larger Spanish cities. Naturally, the first thing I did was try and look for my house. I wasn’t really expecting my insignificant little street to be included, so I was a bit surprised when I saw that it was highlighted as having Street View available. Clicking on it produced another surprise, it wasn’t my street at all – instead they have attached photos of the bigger road running parallel to it. Despite these small teething problems the application is great, you can move along a street and rotate your view to whatever you want. The cars with the cameras did raise some privacy issues here in Spain and I believe that Google had to give an undertaking to blur faces and car registration plates. You can even include it in your web page, as evidenced by this (Aguirre headquarters free) view of the Puerta del Sol. Just click on the arrows to start taking a walk around central Madrid.


View larger map

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Franco On Trial

Judge Baltasar Garzón has decided that his case concerning over 100,000 victims of Franco’s repression can proceed and that he is competent to take it forward. His decision has provoked a hysterical reaction from the right wing media and the Partido Popular, and more seriously is being opposed by the state prosecution service. The judge’s decision opens the way for some of the many mass graves still left in Spain to be opened, including that where it is believed the remains lie of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

Garzón is arguing that crimes were committed which are not affected either by a statute of limitations or the amnesty law which was passed in the late 1970’s to protect representatives of the dictatorship following the transition to democracy. The state prosecutors intend to challenge him on a number of legal technicalities. Apart from the amnesty law they will challenge the classification of crimes committed by Franco’s regime as crimes against humanity and are said to be even intending to argue that the military uprising that provoked the civil war means that those involved should be subject to military, rather than civil, justice. It’s a headlong clash between the two sides that is set to come up before a court of Garzón´s fellow judges for decision.

The reaction from the political inheritors of Francoism has largely been based around an attempt to ridicule Garzón’s case. The legal formality which requires the certification of the death of Franco and other leading figures of the dictatorship attracted their attention, with Esperanza Aguirre suggesting that Napoleon should also be charged for what his army did in Spain 200 years ago. On the media front El Mundo led the charge against Garzón, who was firmly scratched off their Christmas card list when he got close to destroying the paper’s attempts to promote the “boric acid” case. The same paper published a story the other day featuring some of the few who are still alive who they claimed could potentially be taken to trial. El Mundo portrayed the daily routine of these poor elderly “abuelos” who wanted nothing more than to be left in peace with their daily chupito and a game of dominos down at the local bar. Of course, once you apply the same logic to the Klaus Barbies of this world and the other elderly Nazi war criminals who were painstakingly tracked down, you might start to think more of those who never got near to the chance of enjoying such a peaceful retirement.

How much of the impetus behind the case is down to judge Garzón’s sizeable ego and his attraction to headline making cases? There’s undoubtedly an influence there, but that doesn’t mean that the arguments behind the case presented are necessarily faulty. A situation where human rights abuses could be pursued by Spanish judges if they happened in any country other than Spain is not sustainable. I suspect the case will be eventually thrown out by what is an overwhelmingly conservative judiciary, with legal technicalities masking the political reasoning that ultimately defines the position of most involved. The law of amnesty should in theory at least be vulnerable, it was passed before the Spanish Constitution was approved and in that political atmosphere of the transition where many things were accepted under the ever present threat of renewed intervention by the military. It’s sad to see that many of those who participated in that process end up making a virtue out of the necessity of the moment. The unfinished business of the transition is at least now on public display.

Monday, October 27, 2008

By The Skin Of Their Teeth

Spain's minority government survived its big autumn test last week by getting the budget for 2009 approved. In the end the suspense on whether they would get sufficient support went all the way up to the wire, although they only needed 7 extra votes to get a majority. To the rescue came the Galician nationalists of the BNG, and the Basque nationalists of the PNV. All the other parties opposed the budget, with the peculiar exception of Navarra’s ruling UPN. When it came to the crunch the government got the support they needed by the reasonably simple method of offering pots of money to their allies in the vote. The great thing from the point of view of the recipients is being able to accept the pot of money and at the same time proclaim to anyone who will listen that you have been acting "responsibly” by voting in favour.

In other years when the economic situation was better it might not have mattered so much if the budget had been rejected, you can always prolong the previous one. This year, however, special provision has to be made for falling tax receipts combined with an increase in social spending to deal with the significant rise in unemployment, something which can reasonably be expected to get worse next year. Also, I found out yesterday, if the government loses a key vote in the first year of a parliament they are not able to call fresh elections until the year is up, not that it would do them much good at the moment to have that option available. The government continues to live from day to day, with upcoming elections in the Basque Country and the unresolved financing scheme for the regions still making any longer term understanding with the parties that could guarantee their majority virtually impossible.

The regional factor didn’t just affect the PNV and the BNG. One of the more surprising consequences of the otherwise tedious budget negotiations has been that it has virtually provoked a rupture between the opposition PP and their allied party in Navarra, the UPN. The latter party depends on support from the PSOE to stay in power in Navarra, and consequently decided that it was in their interests for their two members in the national parliament to abstain on the budget vote. When faced with a choice between staying in power or respecting the wishes of the PP’s national leadership they didn’t hesitate – despite intense pressures and at least two “power” lunches between UPN leader Miguel Sanz and Mariano Rajoy. The PP has now declared their alliance with the UPN to be “suspended”, which doesn’t mean yet that they are about to restart the PP in the region but the implicit threat is being made. Meanwhile the UPN leadership has retaliated with sanctions against their members closest to the PP line. It’s not so long since the PP was organising demonstrations in support of the UPN in Navarra and against the alleged evil plans of Zapatero to hand over the territory to ETA and its allies. How times have changed.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why Can't Spain Be More Like Norway?

The Spanish government seems absolutely determined to be present in the summit to be held next month on the economic crisis. A persistent lobbying operation is in place and members of the government, including Zapatero himself, have expressed public confidence that they will be invited. Even if Spain is not on the initial guest list. It’s all a bit puzzling, the government is setting itself up for a potentially humiliating rebuff; especially given the influence of the Bush administration over who might be invited. Nevertheless, they insist that Spain should be there as recognition of its economic weight – pre 2009 diet.

I don’t have any reason to suppose that the forthcoming summit is going to be anything other than a gigantic backslapping photo opportunity. We are not in a “Bretton Woods” moment where our international financial system is about to be reinvented, and not because things aren´t in a serious enough mess. It’s more to do with the people who are going to be taking the decisions; they’re not up to the job. Can anyone imagine George Bush delivering a slap in the direction of his cherished free market warriors just before he leaves office? I suspect we will get fine sounding words, be told not to worry because the economic system is fundamentally sound and then they will tinker with the system a bit so that worthless assets can only be resold for a maximum of 97000 times their initial value. Maybe that’s all that Zapatero wants, to be in the photo and to be seen as one of the big players.

I have the feeling that the model will be those summits where they still gather to talk of the millennium goals which have been so systematically ignored since they were first set way back in another millennium. All that boring stuff about health, basic education and not dying of starvation. At the last G8 summit they issued a statement about the awful difficulties facing the millions whose food prices had risen so sharply before sitting down to one of the most lavish banquets these summits have ever seen. Be Scandinavian about it. Then you can actually deliver on development commitments instead of just getting together every five years or so to say that of course you maintain your goals and help will probably be forthcoming when circumstances permit and if we didn´t spend all of our money on wars or tax breaks for our crappy financial system and would you mind but we have to go for lunch now. I’m not saying that the Scandinavian model is perfect but you have nations who don’t aspire to be big hitters yet who actually achieve things in a quiet way and without the need to carpet the globe with cluster bombs (so much more efficient than those outmoded anti-personnel mines).

Spain tried to be one of the big boys club under Aznar, and look where that led us! Aznar himself never made any bones about the fact that his interest in the Iraqi invasion was purely so that he could leave office strutting the international stage. His party still tries to suggest that Spain’s international influence has declined since the country withdrew its troops from Iraq. Bombing wedding parties in Afghanistan or guaranteeing the highest opium harvest ever seen may open the door to the international clubs, but Spain would probably do more good internationally and be able to act in a more autonomous way if it behaved more like a Mediterranean Norway.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Week Of The Great Thinkers

It’s been quite a week for the intellectual powerhouses of the Spanish right. First up we got José Maria Aznar treating us to his “thoughts on climate change. It doesn’t matter how many well funded (by the state) foundations you put behind Aznar, his ideas on any subject of any complexity are limited to simplistic notions which leave no evidence of smoking neurons behind them. His true mediocrity on the subject of climate change was best represented by his assertion that the problem would have to be dealt with future generations – so it doesn’t really matter anyway.

Later in the week we got Mrs Aguirre giving us her incisive analysis of the crisis. It should hardly surprise anyone to learn that Esperanza doesn’t regard the problem as being caused by problems of the market itself. Impossible. Instead she passed the blame onto excessive intervention by the state! I must have missed that, when did it happen? Perhaps it has been governments who have been covertly repackaging dodgy loans and selling them on as high quality restructured investment packages. Espe then went on to contradict herself – hardly an unusual occurrence – by claiming that the problems were also caused by a failure of regulation, which I’ve always assumed implies at least a degree of state intervention. Like the true believer she is, she has to maintain the faith even when the Alan Greenspan’s of this world are timidly starting to admit they may have got things wrong. In the process she leaves Zapatero looking almost like a Nobel Prize winner on economic issues.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

For Services Rendered

Competing in the cynicism stakes with Esperanza Aguirre was never going to be easy but I take my hat off to Francisco Camps, president of the Valencian regional government. He inaugurated a new award, the Orden de Jaime 1 el Conquistador, by presenting it to none other than Carlos Fabra! Presumably, this is to console Carlitos for Hacienda’s unreasonable policy of not awarding freshly minted medals for successful tax evasion. As if this wasn’t enough, Don Carlos also gets a change in the local party statutes of the Partido Popular, which will mean that nobody can be expelled from the party for their misdemeanours until there is a firm judicial sentence condemning them. Given that in Spain such a sentence may not come before the beginning of the next ice age, this is effectively a policy of internal political amnesty for all corrupt PP representatives. Given also that the Valencian domain covers a good stretch of the Mediterranean coast, we can expect the number of those seeking refuge in the new rules to be quite high. Perhaps, given Fabra’s overwhelming power in Castellón province, the gesture by Camps contributed to the latter receiving the very Bulgarian figure of 98% support in his re-election as leader of the regional PP. Aguirre only got a meagre 96% in Madrid....¡toma!

The Street Cleaner

Faced with the apparently insatiable demands of the Corporate Time Monster in the next few days, I’m going to have to do some blogging while I have the chance. Those of you unfortunate enough to live outside of Madrid may have missed the latest initiative by the city’s Mayor on how he proposes to make the streets of the capital a better place. Alberto Ruiz Gallardón proposes to ban the “hombre anuncio”, those people whose job consists of carrying an advertising hoarding around the streets. Most of those I see in Madrid are bearing sandwich boards offering to buy gold. Gallardón also wants to ban the handing out of leaflets at the entrances to Metro stations. The claim made by Gallardón is that the job is degrading, although many see the real motive as being a Chinese style measure to improve the appearance of the capital for when we get a visit from the International Olympic Committee. You can’t pretend to have a bustling, modern, economically thriving city if at the same time you have people whose only income comes from being mobile advertising hoardings. The alternative being offered by the city administration to those who face losing their jobs is, er, to be unemployed. In the midst of an economic crisis.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Spain At A Glance....Salaries Versus Stocks

A revealing comparison made last week by Amparo Estrada in Público. An alien landing in the midst of the current crisis and looking at these figures might reasonably assume that the way out would involve the investors helping out the wage earners. Instead, one of those charming little quirks of modern capitalism means that the transfer goes the other way.



Wednesday, October 15, 2008

His Majesty's Loyal Opposition

They can't have been very happy in the headquarters of the Partido Popular as the Spanish government participated in the European Union's "help out our poor bankers" plan. The last thing on earth that the PP wants in this parliament is to be bound into any kind of pact with the government over the economy, after all this has been the sole focus of their opposition since the election campaign in March. Before the scale of the current crisis was fully evident the PP was already doing its bit to talk up Spain’s economic troubles, and this included several attempts to suggest that Spanish banks are not as secure as many assume them to be. This, of course, fitted nicely into the plan to try and pretend that the crisis was just a consequence of mismanagement by Zapatero's government, but even by the PP’s legendary standards they would still be hard pushed to try and claim that Zapatero is the cause of the global problems we have witnessed in the last few weeks.

More recently they have been faced with the same difficulty afflicting right wing parties in many countries. The evident failures of the liberalised market and the heavy price we all have to pay to dig the wealthy few out of their own hole don’t fit well with economic programmes based around more of the same. So the PP has instead opted for a brand of easy populism, even going as far as describing Zapatero as the banker’s friend whilst they pretend to represent the interests of the rest. At one point a couple of weeks ago they even suggested that any support for the government on the economy would depend on the proposed budget for next year being withdrawn. This was a throwback to the last parliament, making their support conditional on a set of demands which they know will never be accepted; the tactic was tried frequently with terrorism and now it is being tested with the economy. All of which throws into question the reality of the PP’s declared change of strategy, consensus has not been on show very much recently.

Now if Zapatero succeeds in leaving the PP weakened on the economy the question of how they adapt their opposition strategy is going to be a tough one. A refusal to support the government at all on this issue will leave them looking very exposed now that Spain is effectively doing what the rest of Europe is doing. Above all, they are keen to avoid the social issues like abortion which might leave them looking like the political wing of the church, and threaten their already unconvincing attempts to present a more open and modern image. Looks like they might have to invent another negotiation with ETA.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Martyr Is Born

El Mundo has treated us to yet another awful, soul-destroying tale of linguistic tyranny in Cataluña. It appears that one of the leading activists in the campaign to make Spanish the language of education in the the region is facing a divorce demand from his wife. The case has been presented against Carmelo González, who once went on hunger strike to demand that his children be educated in Spanish. According to the person who will presumably soon be his ex-wife, Carmelo refuses to allow his children to mix with anyone who speaks Catalan or to listen to media broadcasting in the language, refused to have cava or other products labelled in Catalan inside his house, and was furious when his wife organised a birthday celebration in a school that advertises itself in Catalan. Clearly the very model of tolerance himself, Carmelo has a small problem....he lives in Sitges. That's Sitges in Cataluña.


Monday, October 13, 2008

No English Friendly For Madrid

It didn't take long for this item to make it into the Spanish press. It's hardly a surprising decision, the Spanish football authorities preferred to look the other way and pretend that no racism was involved rather than acknowledge what had happened the last time England played at the Bernabeu stadium, so there is little reason to believe that the same thing won't happen again. I anticipate multiple comments along the lines of "oh it's so unfair, here go the anglos again calling us racists when they're more racist than we are" in the Spanish media where this gets reported.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mariano El Pacifista

Maybe you have some doubts about whether Mariano Rajoy has really switched over to the far left, but the evidence is mounting. Not only is he opposed to plans helping out the bankers, now he's even turned on the military! Caught out yesterday by a live microphone, he was recorded telling Javier Arenas "Mañana tengo el coñazo del desfile", hardly the most patriotic thing to say about the annual military parade held in celebration of the Día de la Hispanidad. Last year, for the same occasion, a man claiming to be Mariano Rajoy issued a regal style video address to the nation where he called on all patriotic Spaniards to attend the parade with pride (and if they found time to shout anti-Zapatero slogans even better). Who said the PP hasn't changed?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Mariano El Rojo

The Partido Popular has rejected the Spanish government’s plans to create a fund to support banks that might have financial problems. They oppose it on the grounds that it is helping bankers rather than ordinary people. South of Watford has obtained exclusive access to the PP's internal bulletin on the subject and this is a rough translation of what party leader Mariano Rajoy had to say on the subject:

“The thing is comrades, we’ve been saying for decades that crisis is an in-built part of the capitalist system. Zapatero and the bankers are going to be determined to make the working class pay for the crisis, and it’s up to us to provide the alternative. Whatever they do is just placing a patch on a bankrupt system so that they can come back in a few years and do the same again. Let me remind you of the prophetic words of Rosa Luxemburg, it’s a clear choice between socialism or barbarism. The next time I play golf with my friend the President of Caja Madrid he’s going to be getting a piece of my mind, you can be sure of that.”