Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Powers Behind The Throne

Virtually all of the media attention concerning the new government has focused on the number of women ministers, and most of all on the heavily pregnant Carme Chacon inspecting the troops as Spain’s first female defence minister. A woman, pregnant, and a Catalan at that – where will it all end? In many ways Chacon’s debut in the post was a demonstration of what we could call radical symbolism, where the impact of the image overshadows the reality of how little will probably change. A more significant change would be if she put an end to the practice of civilian ministers having to play soldiers by barking out orders in silly parades. At least Spain is not a nuclear power, so we are spared any media nonsense about what will happen to the nuclear button whilst she is giving birth! In general, it is possible to say much the same about symbolism of the new government as a whole, given that most of the ministers in it are already familiar and none of the truly heavyweight positions have changed hands. The rumour I mentioned the other day about this being an “interim” 2 year line up to be changed mid-term may yet turn out to be confirmed.

Also receiving attention, but less, has been the appointment of Miguel Sebastian to the post of industry minister. Sebastian was of course Zapatero’s candidate for mayor of Madrid in last year’s municipal elections. He fought a fairly ineffective campaign and got a good drubbing at the hands of Alberto Ruiz Gallardón. Nevertheless, he took on the challenge which others refused, so it was always likely that his sacrifice would be recognised. What perhaps has surprised many is the apparent demonstration of his influence with Zapatero that the new government represents; two of the other new ministers are seen as being close allies of Sebastian. This has already led to suggestions that he will have conflicts with the economy minister Pedro Solbes, who he was at one point predicted to replace. Others may learn the lesson that it is better to lose an election heavily than to win it! Juan Fernando López Aguilar left his job as justice minister to lead the PSOE’s challenge in the Canary Islands last year and did very well, the party got more votes than any other. He is now back in Madrid but at least for the moment is not being given another bite at the ministerial cherry. Meanwhile, not a single junior minister has been promoted to a higher level post.

The whole process of ministerial selection in Spain seems to work quite differently from the UK where ministerial jobs on the whole generally go to those who have served their time and have weight in the parliamentary party. Here in Spain several of the ministers are not even PSOE members and for some of them it is probably the first time they have been near the parliament. The regional factor plays its part. The most powerful regional parties such as those of Cataluña or Andalucia expect to have a couple of “their” people in the government and this forms part of the balancing act. This means that the government is less likely to be at the heart of any inner party conspiracies and there is perhaps slightly less pressure for a prime minister in Spain to have his political enemies sitting at the cabinet table. It may also mean that several of the ministers are relative lightweights who can be replaced without any great political consequence. Why we should believe that ministers actually take decisions anyway is open to question, I read this morning about a British decision to sell heavy water to Norway in the 1950’s. It was apparently an open secret that Norway was then going to pass this on to Israel to help its young nuclear industry and therefore its nuclear weapons capability. No need was even felt to consult with ministers on the decision; such matters were better handled by the officials concerned.

1 comment:

moscow said...

Very good post. I remember the Franco days as a kid, when ministers were like demi-gods. I think the present cabinet is not bad. Not bad at all. At least in theory. There has been a shift to the right, with some of the more 'red socialist' ministers gone. Sebastian said once he is a -bit of a - liberal. We'll see...... Almost everybody has something good to say about Corbacho. These two and Garmendia -apart from Solbes, of course - are the most important ones now.