Monday, March 31, 2008

The Battle Of The Prado

Anyone who thinks that the political battle between Esperanza Aguirre and Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón ended when Aguirre blocked Gallardon’s chances of getting into the Spanish parliament could not be more wrong. The battle between the two rivals has taken a new twist in the last couple of weeks in a tussle over plans by Gallardón to reform the area of Recoletos and the Paseo de Prado in the centre of Madrid. As work is about to begin, Aguirre’s regional administration has stepped in to request an environmental impact assessment on the project and to stress that a significant part of the area affected falls under regional control. It is a move which would hold up the project for a minimum of several months.

Now both Aguirre and Gallardón have past form when it comes to avoiding environmental impact studies of their great projects. In Gallardón’s case the European Union got involved over the giant project to bury the M-30 ring road and to replace it with an innovative urban desert. Unfortunately by the time the EU turned up asking to see the environmental report the project was more or less over. Meanwhile, Aguirre pressed ahead in similar fashion with a controversial project to straighten and re-route a road running through the countryside near Madrid; a project widely believed to be linked to plans to urbanise as much as possible of the area. This was in spite of the existence of a negative environmental impact study. This project has ended up in the courts, but again much of the damage has been done before any action has been taken; this being truly a country where facts on the ground count for much more than anything the law might say.

The Prado-Recoletos reform is the flagship project of Gallardón’s current term and has already undergone much revision as a result of the Baroness Thyssen threatening to lie under the bulldozers unless she got her way on preserving the area around the Thyssen Museum. It is a bit ironic that the attempt to enforce environmental assessment should come with perhaps the only one of these mega projects that potentially increases the amount of space available to pedestrians rather than cars. The regional government seems to think that what the project needs is a new tunnel underneath into which they can funnel even more traffic through the heart of the city. Now tunnels are something that Madrid does well, which is perhaps not surprising as much of the past (and future) city budget has disappeared into the multiple tunnels that honeycomb the city.

Gallardon’s administration has responded with a fairly common deceit. Instead of treating the project as a whole, they now propose to break it up into several mini projects and start work immediately on those parts where the regional government has no competence. Blessed as we are with such far sighted visionaries as our municipal and regional leaders, there is clearly no reason at all why the execution of a massive civil works project in the city centre should be allowed to take priority over yet another bout of political infighting.

Meanwhile Gallardón has ended his post-election period of reflection on his political future by deciding that he likes his job after all, at least when the only available alternative is not having any job. He has also transformed himself into a fervent Rajoy loyalist, knowing as he does that there is no realistic possibility of him successfully challenging the current PP leader. Last week he poked Aguirre supporters in the eye by presenting a motion pledging allegiance to Rajoy to the entire PP group in the city administration – a group which contains several Aguirre supporters; none of whom felt able to refuse support to the motion. In the case of the Espe and Alberto show, we are just witnessing the end of the beginning.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Easter On El Hierro

Here are some photos I took on my Easter break in the most distant of the Canary Islands, El Hierro. Before the Greenwich Meridian became the accepted standard, El Hierro was known to many as the Meridian Island being at one point the furthest point west of the known world for Europeans. This is not a destination for beach lovers, most of the coastline of El Hierro has no beach at all. It is, however, a perfect place for walkers, divers, or mountain bikers. With a population of little over 10,000 people it’s easy to find areas of the island where hardly anyone lives and for such a small island there is an amazing variety of landscapes. Despite the fact that we were there at a peak period with difficulties to find accommodation there was no sensation of crowds, on our walks we never saw more than a handful of people.

We stayed in La Restinga on the southern tip of the island, a small fishing port with some tourist apartments. An apartment here overlooking the sea cost us just €40 a night, and La Restinga has a (slightly) greater concentration of restaurants than other places on the island as well as a bigger variety of fresh fish than some of the other Canary Islands. It provided a nice contrast with the colder and often mistier upper parts of the island. We managed seven walking routes in five days, so despite overeating in the evenings I think I came back a good bit fitter than when I arrived.

The central range of the island rises to a maximum of 1500 metres, and if you start near the bottom then you see the full transformation of the landscape as you gain altitude.

Leaving behind the vineyards down below, the vegetation becomes wilder and lusher as you get nearer to the beginning of the typical Canarian humid forest that used to cover much more of the islands than it does now.

This forest then gives way in the higher parts of the island to pines, not all of which have managed to survive the occasional disaster brought by fire

On the western part of the island there is an area well known for its concentration of juniper trees. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

At the western tip of El Hierro there is a dry volcanic area of jagged lava and extinct volcanic cones, with a lighthouse to help the shipping steer clear of this coast.

Higher up in the centre the island would often be divided into two parts by the clouds that would come in from one side but barely pass over to the other

Short distances between the coast and the heights mean that some of the paths can be challenging for vertigo sufferers, although the paths are often amazingly good considering the terrain they have to cross:

Back down at the coast the waves always seem to find a way through:

Saturday, March 29, 2008

There's No Justice

Workers in the Spanish Justice Ministry have been on strike for several weeks now, meaning that an already slow judicial system is more or less grinding to a halt. The reason for the action is that the strikers want to be paid the same as their counterparts who have been transferred to the autonomous regional comunidades. According to El País the only thing holding up an agreement now is to decide how to resolve the backlog that has been created by the strike. In the meantime anyone who wants to drive down the Calle San Bernardo this morning is making a mistake, the street is completely blocked.

Friday, March 28, 2008

They Fried With Their Boots On

It's a tough world out there, and only the most courageous potatoes make the grade, hardly surprising when they have to share the menu with tigers. As a homage to those who have fallen in the line of duty I include an image of the eternal flame that burns above the Tomb of the Unknown Potato.

Something to think about the next time you are tucking into a nutritious plate of Calluses Madrilenian!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Who Will Speak For Rajoy?

With the formation of a new government that looks very much like the old government, and with the very slow dance in progress between the PSOE and potential allies to form a parliamentary majority, it’s much more interesting to look at what’s happening inside the Partido Popular (PP). Parliamentary business has already resumed in the build up to the vote on the new government, and currently all significant negotiations involving the PP are being handled by Eduardo Zaplana. Wait a minute, didn’t he resign recently from his position as PP parliamentary spokesperson? So he did, but PP leader Mariano Rajoy has one thing in common with me in that he never decides today what he can leave until after his holidays.

Rajoy’s post-election holiday has now ended and the appointment of a new spokesperson in parliament might seem like the most routine of political decisions; Zapatero has already made his move and placed his good friend José Antonio Alonso in the equivalent position for the PSOE. However, for the PP the decision that Rajoy takes assumes greater importance because it could be the first really clear indicator of where the power lies in the party following their latest election defeat. So in the public interest South of Watford has prepared the following pull out and keep guide to the potential candidates for the post.

Soraya Sáenz de Santamaria – If she gets the job then Rajoy is placing his own people in key posts, as she belongs to his inner circle of advisors.

Esteban González Pons – This man is seen as the representative in Madrid of the Valencian president Francisco Camps, so if he gets the position then that suggests Rajoy and Camps have done a deal on sharing power in return for Camps supporting Rajoy as leader. It would also be a big slap in the face to Zaplana who has lost his battle with Camps to control the Valencian PP.

Manuel Pizarro – What do you do with a retired millionaire businessman who never really signed up for the idea of spending four years in opposition? Pizarro turned out to be a disaster as the PP’s secret election weapon on economic issues and would be equally disastrous as parliamentary spokesperson. His name has been suggested for the post by Esperanza Aguirre so if he was appointed it would be a significant gesture in her direction. So not the most the likely option then. Incidentally, it’s been very quiet around Madrid recently whilst Aguirre has been digesting the consequences of Rajoy staying on as PP leader.

We should know in the next few days and of course it could always be someone else apart from these three candidates. Place your bets.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Spanish Football For Beginners....The Botellazo And The Paliza

The botellazo is a tactic that has already been used in the past with some success by supporters of Real Betis. It is a defensive strategy that only comes into use when the team looks to be in danger of losing a game. Although technically illegal, the authorities have done little so far to prevent its use; something which probably accounts for its continuing popularity as demonstrated in the recent game against Athletic Bilbao.

Under no circumstances should any stewards ever be employed to prevent the throwing of objects onto the pitch, that would count as unsporting behaviour as well as being an intolerable breach of the long-standing right to throw bottles. In the case of any punishment being applied to the club, even a light one, an immediate appeal must be lodged. Failure to do this may result in the intolerable situation where football clubs in Spain become obliged to assume responsibility for the behaviour of their supporters.

The paliza is a more offensive strategy and begins with the local sporting press creating the right conditions for the use of the tactic. Here we have an example from the other side of Sevilla:

Crush them....they cannot escape alive

Once the right atmosphere has been created then the action can begin. Any suggestion that these tactics have anything in common with the phenomenon commonly known as "hooliganism" should be quickly rejected, such foreign imports are regarded with suspicion by the true fan.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Send In The Bulldozers

As I’m going to the Canary Islands for a few days over Easter, it seems an appropriate time to post on one of the latest Spanish construction scandals to emerge. This one concerns Lanzarote, following a decision by the supreme court in the Canary Islands to cancel the licences of some hotels (in Spanish here). The use of the word “some” here is really a deliberate understatement because the number of hotels declared illegal is actually 22, and they include some of the most luxurious accommodation on the island. The total number of rooms in the hotels is 7721, so at an average of roughly 350 rooms per hotel we are hardly talking about a few small bed and breakfasts.

The hotels are illegal because they were built in defiance of a moratorium on new tourist construction that was introduced in 2000. In some cases they are also illegal because they break the Ley de Costas which is supposed to prevent construction in public domain areas bordering the sea. Two municipalities on Lanzarote decided that such restrictions didn’t apply to them, and it seems that several well known hotel companies such as Melia also decided that the law is just for the little people. Amazingly, the European Union did its bit by contributing over €30 million of funds supposed to be for deprived areas to assist these big companies in breaking the law.

Comparisons are already being made with Marbella, where tens of thousands of illegal dwellings were constructed before action was finally taken against those running the town. The problem arises of what to do about such constructions once they have been built and are being used. I find it impossible to believe that no power exists to halt such illegal building or that the authorities can claim to be unaware of what is happening. In Lanzarote, it has been a private foundation that has done much of the work to get these licences cancelled.

Sadly, there is already talk of adopting the Marbella solution to the problem which consists of the developers compensating the local authorities by handing over other land they own to public control. I really hope they don’t do this in this case. With Marbella it’s a difficult situation because many people will have bought flats or houses in good faith believing them to be legal, but in this case it concerns hotels being run by the people who built them. If they are allowed to get away with just handing over a piece of useless scrubland to the local authority as compensation then they will carry on building illegal hotels because there is no great loss involved in doing so. Lanzarote is a biosphere reserve, but won’t deserve the title for much longer if this kind of operation is permitted. Send in the bulldozers at the cost of those who did the construction, it’s the only way the people involved will learn that they can’t do what they like.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


I don’t normally watch many things on Spanish television apart from news, football and films. However, I’ve made an exception for a short series running on Monday nights on La Primera based on the killing at the beginning of last year of the mayor of a tiny village called Fago in the Aragonese Pyrenees.

The series portrays a village divided in two between those who support their mayor and those who hate him. The mayor himself, an outsider from the big city of Zaragoza, is clearly not using his powers in an impartial way and his refusal to register newcomers as residents in the village only helps to increase resentment. When he is murdered on an isolated road the list of suspects is not short as there are plenty of people with reasons to dislike him.

The odd thing about this series is not just that it is based on real events; it is also the fact that the man charged with the murder of the mayor of Fago is still awaiting trial. In Britain I think it would be completely impossible for a television company to produce a series about such events before the trial takes place; the principal difference being that the trial would take place with a jury. Here in Spain the series had to be approved by a judge after the Guardia Civil were sent to seize the tapes of the production before it could be shown. The family of the dead man wanted to stop the series being shown. Even though the names of the main characters have been changed, the name of the village is the same and it is completely clear that the fictional series is based on the actual events that occurred.

The village only has 34 registered inhabitants, and they got completely fed up with the invasion of journalists and the curious that they suffered following the killing of their mayor. It is a feeling that can only be reinforced by seeing their village portrayed in this way on prime time television every Monday for three weeks.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Electoral Geography

Tying up the loose ends remaining from the Spanish general election, it’s time to take a brief look at how the country divides in its voting habits with respect to the two largest parties (PSOE and PP), and how the results don’t necessarily confirm popular perceptions of voting differences in different parts of the country.

In the case of the PP it is commonly assumed that their main power bases are regions like Castilla-Leon and Galicia. Villages that still stubbornly maintain their “Calle del Generalisimo” are thought to be the bastions of PP support. However, the reality now is that the real centre of power for the PP has shifted eastwards towards the Mediterranean. Add together the combined advantage of the PP over the PSOE in the whole of Castilla-Leon and Galicia and you get just five seats difference between the two parties. Then if you add to this the advantage gained in the noisily proclaimed PP victory in Madrid the total still only rises to eight. Well Valencia and Murcia combined give the PP a greater advantage than these other regions, making the Mediterranean belt lying between Cataluña and Andalucia their real stronghold.

For the PSOE their victory in the elections has been attributed to their overwhelming superiority in Cataluña, where they obtained seventeen more seats than the PP. That accounts for the national difference between the two major parties. However, if you take Cataluña out of the equation we are still left with a situation where the PSOE and PP are effectively level with each other in the rest of the country. It shouldn’t be forgotten, for example, that Andalucia provides the PSOE with significantly more members of parliament than Cataluña, despite PP advances in that region. Whilst the PP has become stronger in the east of the country, the PSOE has steadily improved its position in the north, especially in regions such as the Basque Country and Aragon. The party does not do as badly as is often imagined in the central heartlands of the two Castillas, and the PSOE in general has a stronger claim to be a truly national party in the breadth of its support.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

PPravda Reports....Right Wing Populism, An Infantile Disorder

PPravda, the house journal of the Partido Popular, reports today on the highly successful visit made last week to Valencia by the Dear Leader, Comrade Mariano Rajoy. This was the first official activity undertaken by Comrade Rajoy following the recent stealing of the elections to the Supreme Soviet by the Menshevik Traitor Zapatero and his band of so-called “left nationalist” voters.

The Dear Leader was the guest of Comrade Francisco Camps, leader of the Party in Valencia. Comrade Rajoy praised Camps for his success in the recent elections, and Comrade Camps in return wished the Dear Leader good health for the next four years. Comrade Rajoy noted that Camps has been a pioneer in implementing the revolutionary policy of handing over all public services to the friends of the Party. He also praised him for his loyalty to the Party, saying that he knew of “one or two comrades in Madrid who would be well advised to follow the example of Comrade Camps”.

Comrade Rajoy was then treated to a performance by Valencian peasant women dressed in traditional costumes. This performance formed part of the preliminary ceremonies of the Fallas, a Valencian festival commemorating the successful storming of the regional parliament by the masses under the leadership of Comrade Eduardo Zaplana. It should be pointed out that, following Comrade Zaplana's wise decision to "resign" from the Central Committee, a reassessment of these momentous events is taking place and newly discovered documents suggest that it was in fact Comrade Camps who led the final successful assault.

The Dear Leader salutes his enthusiastic supporters

Lunch was followed by speeches and toasts in honour of the Dear Leader, the Greatest Leader, Comrade Aznar, and the Supreme Leader, Comrade Don Manuel. The tour concluded with a visit to the Number 18 turrón factory, where the Dear Leader was acclaimed by thousands of enthusiastic workers. Comrade Rajoy has now returned to Madrid where he continues his task of renovation and steadfast opposition to the revisionist Traitor Zapatero.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Blues For Madrid, The PP Take The Suburbs

It’s not just victory in the city of Madrid that the Partido Popular (PP) is claiming following the general election; the PP also won in a significant majority of municipalities in the rest of the region, including several that are traditionally associated with the left. Now many people outside of the capital have the image of Madrid being a city of “fachas”, and whilst it’s true that the city has more than its fair share of right wing lunatics the reality has always been a bit different. The city itself has in the past been controlled by the left, and at regional level elections were extremely close up until 2003.

The towns surrounding Madrid used to be known as the “cinturón rojo”, the red belt of working class voters that consistently supported the left. Demographics have taken their toll on this picture, and many of these towns have expanded significantly as people in search of cheaper and larger housing have migrated out of the city. Even so, there is no particular reason why these people should be right wing voters, unless it’s the constant onslaught of the COPE radio station as they sit in their traffic jams trying to get to work every day. Perhaps it’s the illusion of wealth, a sort of “my house is very expensive, if I can afford to live here without being kicked out then I must be rich, and if I am rich then I should support the PP” way of seeing the world?

Things should be put into some perspective, the advantage the PP has over the PSOE in Madrid is just three parliamentary seats, compare that to the difference between the two parties in Barcelona; ten seats in favour of the PSOE. In the 2004 election, held three days after the Madrid train bombings, the distance between the two main parties was just a single seat. Nevertheless, for the PP to have a 10 point advantage in Madrid over the PSOE when they lose the elections nationally suggests that this gap could get significantly wider when (or if) the PP wins. On current trends it would take a PSOE landslide to give them back political superiority in Madrid.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

How Much Is A Kilo Of Votes Worth?

Depends who’s buying. I’ve written before about the side effects of the Spanish electoral system for some of the smaller parties, but the results of this year’s election leave things very clear. I came across the diagrams below from El País via a post on El Siglo de las Luces. The first one shows how many parliamentary seats each party would have if the assignation of seats was done on a national scale rather than by province. The number of seats they should have got is the first figure, the second is the number actually obtained. CiU's figure is already out of date, they lost a seat to the PP yesterday because of the overseas vote.

So under a more proportional system both the PSOE and the PP would lose several seats, the Basque nationalists of the PNV would also lose a couple and Nafarroa Bai would disappear from the parliament. On the other hand, Izquierda Unida would have 14 representatives instead of just 2, and the new party UPD would go up from 1 to 4. Conclusion, the principal beneficiaries of the system are the big national parties, and the main losers are the smaller national parties. This dispels the myth that parties like IU are underrepresented because the regional nationalist parties do well out of the electoral system. The second diagram shows how many votes were needed per seat won for each party:

So at the moment Izquierda Unida needs almost half a million votes to get a single representative in the Spanish parliament, whilst at the other end of the scale the PNV needs just 50,000. In this election, the PSOE needed slightly fewer votes than the PP for each seat gained, but once you allow for the extra seat the PP got yesterday then the difference is very small.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Spot The Loser!

Sounds like an easy question doesn’t it, the loser in this photograph taken on election night has to be the one with the beard? Well, maybe he is not the only loser shown in this image because yesterday’s news that Mariano Rajoy intends to carry as leader of the Partido Popular (PP) creates a serious problem for the lady who was smiling so happily behind him on the other side of the window. Esperanza Aguirre didn’t appear on the balcony as Mariano Rajoy gave what many thought was his farewell address to the PP supporters in the street below. The feeling that this was his last election was widespread, and some of the PP’s allies in the media had already started talking about the need for change at the top of the party.

Well yesterday saw the meeting of the PP’s national executive, and Rajoy took everyone by surprise by announcing his intention to stay on and fight the next general election. A national congress will be held in June and Rajoy will present himself for re-election. The challenge is clear for Aguirre or anyone else with ambitions to lead the party; they will have to take on Rajoy in a public contest. This creates a potentially unprecedented situation for the PP, which doesn’t generally encourage public dispute or debate. Elections for candidates are not very common either, Rajoy was chosen by Aznar; not by the party in general. The PP always reminds me of the Soviet Communist Party in the way in which it works, as all signs of public dissent are frowned upon. So we are told by El Mundo that the “message of renovation and continuity transmitted by the PP leader….has had wide support amongst the leaders of his party.” Furthermore, tractor production will be increased by 8000% in the next five years and I am only making some of this up.

Unfortunately for Aguirre, this is probably her last chance. If Zapatero serves his full term she will be 60 at the time of the next election, move on another four years after that and she is unlikely to be seen as the fresh face the party needs to change its fortunes. The other possible candidates can bide their time. Alberto Ruiz Gallardón has little choice in that because there is simply no possibility he will win the party’s backing now. Another possible candidate for the succession, Valencia’s Francisco Camps, is young enough to wait for his moment too. The only other name that had been mentioned was that of Rodrigo Rato whose political ambitions were shattered when Aznar chose Rajoy over him. Rato, despite being very busy earning truckloads of money, is still a potential player for a party in need of a candidate capable of attracting votes.

Rajoy’s argument is that Aznar had three bites at the cherry before he finally won a national election. The difference, though, is that Aznar began with a party in opposition whereas Rajoy became PP leader when they had an absolute majority. Had he wanted to go he would have been allowed to leave with dignity, given that the defeat he suffered was not overwhelming. Moreover, the PP’s inability to do self-criticism (they are Stalinists rather than Maoists) means that they cannot find anything wrong with what they have done; so why change the leader? His decision to stay almost certainly counts with the blessing of both Aznar and Manuel Fraga, and is a direct challenge to those who made his life difficult during the last parliament by publicly exhibiting their ambition to replace him. Rajoy has declared that he wants to renovate his team, which should mean that both Angel Acebes and Eduardo Zaplana are shifted aside. Even so, it hardly looks like a fresh start and it seems hard to imagine a third Rajoy candidacy generating much public enthusiasm. Things have to go badly for Zapatero for the PP to return to power this way.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Other Elections

All this talk about general elections means that the really important issues sometimes get forgotten. But voting took place in another election last weekend, and now we know who will represent Spain in this year's Eurovision Song Contest. Eurovision rules prohibit any political content, so the references to Rajoy, Zapatero and Hugo Chavez are going to have to be removed for the main contest. By the time the contest happens people may have forgotten who Rajoy is anyway.

Personally, I'm not convinced that Rodolfo Chikilicuatre has got what it takes to beat Dustin the Turkey in what promises to be the most bizarre Eurovision of all times.

Cheer Up, Might Never Happen!

Izquierda Unida have reacted quickly to their resounding defeat in the elections and have entered into a process of profound internal reflection on the causes.


Monday, March 10, 2008

La Mirada Positiva Gets Another Chance

I must admit I was a bit nervous last night about the election results. Even the exit polls showing a clear victory for Zapatero didn’t completely reassure me, and I needed about 15% of the votes to be counted before I started to feel happier. This happiness comes not so much from Zapatero being the winner, the most important thing for me was simply that the Partido Popular lost. Not by as much as I would have liked, but you can’t have everything. In the end it’s been a relatively good election for the opinion pollsters, a margin between the two main parties of around 3.5% fits pretty well with many of the poll predictions during the campaign.

The general verdict of the press and many bloggers has been that Spain is now a two party state, as the vote of smaller parties was squeezed. Certainly the number of parliamentary seats ending up in the hands of the PSOE or the PP is higher than ever, but it’s important to distinguish between what can happen in national elections here, and the very different results you can get when voters elect their regional governments. The PP added around 400,000 votes to their total from 2004, but they still trail the PSOE by almost 1 million. The PP did especially well in their strongholds of Madrid and Valencia, and made limited advances in Andalucia. Apart from their central Spanish heartlands, the have consolidated their control on the Mediterranean coast south of Cataluña – La Costa del Concrete. The PSOE did well in Cataluña, despite the problems they have had there, and is now the biggest single party in the Basque Country. They retained majority control in the simultaneous regional elections held yesterday in Andalucia.

Zapatero is just seven seats short of a parliamentary majority; last time around the deficit was twelve. However, the two principal allies that guaranteed a majority in the last parliament - Izquierda Unida (IU) and Esquerra Republicana (ERC) - can no longer do so in the next. Both suffered a sharp decline in their support as the anti-PP vote went to the PSOE. The most direct route to a majority will lie in an agreement between Zapatero and the conservative Catalan nationalists of Convergencia i Unio, who got less votes than last time but still took 11 seats. It has been more or less an open secret over the last couple of years that Zapatero viewed Convergencia as a potentially more reliable ally than ERC. The problem for the PSOE is that they run the Catalan government in alliance with ERC and IU, and the price that Convergencia might put on a national agreement could be a road map which sees them back in power in Cataluña.

Alternatives exist to a PSOE-Convergencia alliance. The PSOE has relatively good relations with the Basque nationalists of the PNV, and could combine their support with that of the Galician nationalists and IU to construct an alternative, but slender, majority. This is the reality of the new Spain, and for all the talk of the two main parties being dominant the power to make or break a government still lies with the smaller parties. I imagine that Zapatero will not seek a coalition agreement; instead he will try to repeat the experience of the last four years by governing as a minority party with pacts to get support from other parties on key issues.

As for the PP, we have been denied the spectacle of seeing them trying to form alliances with parties who they have spent years denigrating. Despite the potentially entertaining nature of this, it’s just as well they didn’t emerge as the biggest party. They would have reached an (expensive) alliance with parties like Convergencia or even the PNV, who would then happily have turned a blind eye to whatever punishment the PP chose to inflict on the rest of the country. The defeat is not heavy enough to force the PP into the profound period of reform and introspection that they should have undergone four years ago. It’s still depressing to see that the party which fabricated lies on such a grand scale about the Madrid train bombings should do so well in the city where that atrocity took place. Mariano Rajoy will go, but unless Esperanza Aguirre gets very nervous (something that can’t be completely ruled out) he will be allowed to go in a dignified manner, without being pushed out of a window at the PP headquarters or dragged through the streets of Madrid behind a chariot.

It’s been a sad night for Izquierda Unida, reduced from five to two seats, and Gaspar Llamazares has already announced that he will stand down as national coordinator. Nothing further remains to be said about the workings of an electoral system that leaves IU with such poor representation despite still getting almost a million votes. Llamazares is a decent man, who broke from within the stranglehold that the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) tried to maintain over IU. The combination of years of electoral decline together with the pressure of the “useful” anti-PP vote have left IU in this position and I doubt that any other leader would have achieved a different result.

In the end the Spanish electorate resisted with some maturity the purely negative message of the PP, with xenophobia and resentment of regional nationalisms being mixed into the pot along with the most brazen manipulation of terrorism for political gain. That’s encouraging, although I can’t help worrying that 40% of the electorate seems to think that this recipe offers some kind of way forward. I suspect we will get more of the same from the PP, they don’t do self-criticism very well and the message of the dominant hard right faction will be that all they need is a more electable leader. The next few years may yet be every bit as turbulent politically as the last four have been.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....The Results

These are the results of the Spanish elections with about 95% of the vote counted:

Partido Obrero Socialista Español - 169 seats (43.7% of the vote)
Partido Popular - 153 (40.1%)
Convergencia i Unio - 10 (3%)
Partido Nacionalista Vasco - 6 (1.2%)
Izquierda Unida - 3 (3.8%)
Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya - 3 (1.1%)
Bloque Nacionalista Gallego - 2 (0.8%)
Coalición Canaria- 2 (0.5%)
Unión Progreso y Democracia - 1 (1.2%)
Nafarroa Bai - 1 (0.3%)

The widget on my previous post shows the full results. Both the PSOE and the PP have increased the number of seats they have in the Spanish parliament, the PSOE has won the elections but falls short of an overall majority. It's a bad night for Izquierda Unida and Esquerra Republicana who have both experienced significant drops - meaning the PSOE can no longer reach a parliamentary majority with their support.

The PP has done very well in its strongholds of Madrid and Valencia, and has also gained ground in Andalucia - despite losing the regional elections that were also held there today. Apart from these changes there is little difference over the previous elections in 2004. The only new party in the the Spanish parliament is Unión Progreso y Democracia which has won its only seat in Madrid at the expense of Izquierda Unida.

I've been watching the results on TelemAguirre, the publicly funded channel previously known as TeleMadrid, even they are not capable of manipulating the results and at least one of their panelists has already issued a call for a change of leadership in the PP.

Things To Do On Election Day When You're Not Allowed To Vote

When the going gets tough, the tough go for lunch. I hope to be back in time to blog the results of today's election, but it's a Spanish lunch so it's also possible that I may not even be back in time to blog the results of the next election. In any case, if the widget below (courtesy of works properly you will be able to view the results on that. Even if it doesn't work it looks nice. Meanwhile, the South Poll has thrown up a surprising prediction for the outcome:

PSOE - 24%
PP - 9%
IU - 26%
CiU - 2%
ERC - 21%
PNV - 4%
Others - 2%
Don't Know Don't Care - 7%

Apart from the fact that this only adds up to 95% it needs to be stressed that opinion polling is not a precise science and it is possible that the final results may deviate slightly from this estimation. Still, it's nice to see the PP bumping along on 9%, if only real life could be like life at the South Poll!

The slightly more reliable final poll published yesterday by El Periodico in their Andorran edition was giving the PSOE a 5.3 point advantage over the PP, I should point out that this is significantly higher than the lead shown in the majority of recent polls. 176 seats is the magic number for a majority in the Congreso de Diputados, not a single poll in the campaign has shown either of the major parties doing that well.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Spain Decides

A few images taken in Madrid yesterday showing the choices open to voters in tomorrow's General Election.

From left to right - PSOE, Partido Cervantes, PP

Will Mariano get on the bus? Or did he forget his bonobus?

These people have their own bus, although they don't seem to have many passengers.

Rosa clearly has documentation, but she forgot to change her address and won't be able to vote for herself in Madrid.

Will the winner be Obama or Gaspar Llamazares?

Or will the vote just be for Gaspi, as Llamazares is known to his friends and the under fives...

Spanish General Election 2008....The Day Of Reflection

I had to abandon a post I had written for this blog yesterday. I wrote a piece which compared the closing days of this campaign to the sombre and tense finale to the last election campaign in 2004. In it I celebrated the awful tedium of having an end to the campaign that was not overshadowed by terrorism or even by the attempts of some to gain political advantage with it. Then came the assassination yesterday of Isaias Carrasco by ETA and in a single moment my post no longer seemed to fit.

Carrasco was killed outside of his home. He was a member of the PSOE and had previously been a councillor for that party in the town where he lived, Mondragón. In the last municipal elections he was number six on the party list and they only achieved four councillors, so he was not currently on the town council. He worked for the company that runs toll roads in the region, and although he was entitled to have a bodyguard he had decided not to; presumably thinking that as a low profile political figure he would not be high on ETA’s list of targets. Sadly, it is precisely that condition that made him an ideal target for an ETA that is currently not in a condition to aspire to more “important”, but better protected, targets.

The election campaign finished with the shooting, and ETA managed with this single act to put itself back at the centre of political attention. There was not much more campaigning to be done, today is the mandatory “day of reflection” before voting takes place tomorrow. The political parties met yesterday afternoon and agreed a joint statement of condemnation. However, the unity of the parties was at best a formal one. I expected the Partido Popular (PP) to at least make a token attempt at extracting some political advantage, and so it turned out. The PP representatives at the meeting turned up with a couple of demands that they knew had no chance of being accepted; a permanent rejection of any negotiations with ETA and the revocation of the parliamentary resolution that permitted the last attempt to seek a negotiated solution. It was a small, but telling, piece of political theatre. A little sign of what they would surely have attempted had the victim been a member of the PP rather than the PSOE.

With political activity prohibited on the day of reflection, the timing of the killing left few options for those whose only desire in such cases is to hold the government responsible for all terrorist actions. The Asociación de Victimas del Terrorismo (AVT) initially called a demonstration for today which would have brought out all the fur coat clad señoras to shout “Zapatero dimisión” at anyone still prepared to listen. Clearly someone reminded the AVT that today is the day of reflection and they cancelled the mobilisation. Instead we got another PP satellite organisation, the Foro de Ermua, calling a small demonstration last night in Madrid’s Plaza de Colon. Take a look at one of the pretty banners someone took with them:

I don’t want to be too pessimistic, but the outlook on terrorism in Spain is not at all hopeful. The pincer movement formed by an intransigent ETA locked into its time warp of “armed struggle”, and an opportunist PP seemingly determined to use terrorism as its main instrument for seeking political revenge leaves little room for optimism. We hear a lot about ETA’s weakness and how they are on their last legs; the targeting of Carrasco is indeed a demonstration of their weakened state. However, it is also a demonstration of just how easy it will be for them to go on killing – the state is not capable of protecting all the potential targets all of the time. The myth that ETA can be defeated by police pressure alone is attractive to many, but I know of no comparable case where it has actually happened. For all the political rhetoric ETA is not about to disappear, and we could be in for a long period of low intensity terrorism. As usual, those who pay the price of this sad situation are not those responsible for it, instead ordinary people like Isaías Carrasco fulfil that role.

As for ETA themselves, I wonder whether it even makes sense to try and understand where they think they are going. They have the option, much as they like to pretend it doesn’t exist, of taking what we might call the “Aralar alternative”. Aralar is a breakaway party from ETA’s political wing Batasuna, and it pursues the objectives of radical Basque nationalism in a legal, open manner. They are able to do so, nobody prevents them from operating. ETA knows that this option exists, but is not ready for life as the smaller nationalist cousin to a dominant Partido Nacionalista Vasco. Take away the threat of the use of armed action and you have a party which loses the possibility to dominate politics in the Basque Country. Some day it has to happen, the only question now is how many more pointless killings there will be on the way.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Basque Socialist Shot Dead

It looks as if ETA may have finally succeeded in entering the election campaign. A former Socialist councillor called Isaías Carrasco has been shot dead a short while ago in the Basque town of Mondragón and it seems that the Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero has already cancelled some of his commitments to return to Madrid. It has just been reported that the main parties have suspended the rest of their electoral campaign.

It looks like ETA have gone for an easy target - someone who is not a significant political figure and who would have no protection - but at a moment which will have maximum impact on the election as all the parties were preparing for their final campaign rallies tonight.

Now we wait to see how the parties react. Mariano Rajoy made a statement earlier in which he went just to the edge of trying to use it to score a political point. I'm sure there are some in his party who would like nothing more than to get their supporters out on the streets of Madrid before Sunday to tell us that it's all Zapatero's fault. Anyway, it seems that all parties have been called to a meeting in Madrid this afternoon.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Victoria Esperanza

It's just been announced on the TV news, "la niña de Rajoy" has a name. Mariano has finally revealed to the world that the little girl he has in his head is called Victoria Esperanza. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, I though "la niña" was his secret weapon for winning the election and it turns out that it's just been a prediction about who will be his successor! Mi gozo en un pozo.

Spanish General Election 2008....The Last Opinion Polls

Publication of opinion polls is not permitted during the last week of the election campaign in Spain. For this reason the last estimations on the outcome of the elections are those of the Sunday prior to election day itself, meaning they are a week out of date by the time voters go to the polling stations. It was perhaps inevitable that someone would eventually find a way round this restriction, and so it turns out with a poll that has been published by El Periodico today. That would be El Periodico de Catalunya would it? Well almost, but not quite. It turns out that El Periodico has an Andorran edition, and Andorra not being part of Spain they are able to print the results of an opinion poll!

What their poll shows today is an advantage of 3.4% in favour of the governing PSOE, nothing too far out of line with the polls published last weekend. More worrying for the PSOE will be the relatively low participation estimate, which the poll puts at 68%. However, the political parties will almost certainly have their own internal polls to give them an idea of what is happening in the final days. This poll in El Periodico was conducted after Monday's final electoral debate and shows no real influence from that debate on voting intentions. Residents of Andorra will be treated to a further tracking poll tomorrow on the elections in their larger neighbour to the south.

Updated: Here is a new phenomenon, I've just seen that the Times has commissioned a poll yesterday on the Spanish elections (it gives Zapatero a lead of 3.8%). This is the first case I can remember of a British newspaper commissioning its own opinion poll on a European election. This poll puts the estimated participation at 74-76% which is good news for the left if it turns out that way. Here is the powerpoint presentation of the results - it's written in Spanglish.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Scary Movie

It's late, you're at home, the children are asleep, and you think you are safe. But you're not.....

via Neto Raton 2.0

Spanish General Election 2008....The Emigrants Who Can Vote

Take a quick look at the image illustrating this post and see if you can guess where it was captured. Don’t bother thinking about Madrid, Barcelona or Sevilla; it’s much further away than any of these cities. It’s actually from Buenos Aires and is an indication of the importance in Spanish elections of those citizens who live overseas.

Not all Spanish emigrants returned home in the years following the death of Franco and restoration of democracy. It is estimated that in Argentina alone there are some 250-300,000 Spaniards eligible to vote, and around 150,000 of these are expected to do so. That’s many more votes than will be cast in Spanish provinces like Soria or Teruel and means that countries like Argentina or Uruguay can be important sources of support for several parties, especially if the elections turn out to be close. There are also significant numbers of Spaniards living and working in other European countries.

The origin of the Spaniards who live in South America is not always uniform and certain parts of the country, notably Galicia, are overrepresented in this community compared to their share of the total population in Spain. I don’t know what happens now, but when former Francoist minister Manuel Fraga was running the regional government of Galicia things worked like this. When an election was close Fraga would generally disappear some time before polling day on an “institutional” visit to Argentina. On this visit he would hand out a bit of largesse to the local Galician community centres, then point out how nice these centres would look if this largesse kept on coming and by the way did they know there was an election coming up? Maybe the system has changed now that Fraga has gone, but I’m sure the philosophy behind it hasn’t.

Incidentally, and this doesn’t just affect the overseas community, they say the requests for postal votes this time are running at about 40% above those of the last election. Which could mean that turnout is going to be high on Sunday; or maybe it just tells us that the number of couch potatoes with an interest in politics has increased in the last four years?

Walking Routes In Tarragona....La Mussara And Montsant

Just in case anyone thinks I went to Tarragona last weekend just to eat calçots I present the case for the defence. Although there are no high mountains in the area, there are still some spectacular walking routes to be done. So in need of a pretext to justify all the eating that came later, we did a circular route from the small village of Vilaplana to the peak of La Mussara. Walking up several hundred metres through some beautiful Mediterranean forest you get to the top where you can relax and have a drink at the refuge whilst admiring the views all the way down to the coast. There is also an abandoned village at the top of La Mussara. The route is not particularly long (around 10km) and nor is it so difficult despite being a significant climb.

Here is the map of the route together with another one that we did last year in the equally striking area of Montsant. Both routes are recommended and as always GPS tracks are available on demand.

View larger map

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....Death By A Thousand Statistics

So the polls give it to Zapatero again in the second debate with Mariano Rajoy. Naturally I checked first with those who would most want Rajoy to be declared the winner, El Mundo and Telemadrid, but even their polls called it for Zapatero. Despite frantic spinning by the PP as soon as the debate finished they have been unable to create the sensation of their candidate being the winner.

Both candidates were better performers than last time, Zapatero because he was a bit less nervous and is naturally more expressive than his opponent. Rajoy because he had memorized his monologues this time rather than just reading them. Despite this, neither is likely to have enthused anyone except their most committed supporters as the debate raged over precisely the same issues as last week’s edition. The only difference this time, apart from the higher level of preparation, was that a bit more time was dedicated (at least in Zapatero’s case) to talking about proposals for the future.

Rajoy was every bit as aggressive as last week, and relied principally on the same three issues which he pressed in the first debate; the economy, immigration and terrorism. The main problem he has with this trio of issues is that he is very vulnerable to counter-attacks on all of them. A disproportionate amount of time was wasted on whether it was true that Rajoy had asked Zapatero about the economy in their first parliamentary session following the last elections. In reality all he did in that question was mention IVA (the Spanish VAT) in a list of issues. What is undeniable is that the economy then dropped out of the political battle until things started deteriorating at the end of last year. For well over three years the PP had nothing at all to say on the issue.

Their silence is not surprising in the sense that the economy was doing very well and because they were obsessed with exploiting terrorism. In reality, the bubble based around construction that has now been burst was precisely the model of economy that the PP boasted about so loudly in the years of Aznar and “España va bien”. If Zapatero is to be criticised for his handling of the economy it is because he has not done anything to change the model the PP bequeathed to him. However, that was not Rajoy’s angle, and he is forced into tremendous selective manipulation of statistics to try and present the case for economic catastrophe. Something is either wrong with me or with the figures he presented, because if the 43% increase in property prices under Zapatero is greater than that which occurred under the PP, then I am at a loss to explain how property prices in my area of Madrid have risen by around 300% in the last 10 years. Most of that rise occurred under the PP.

In case there was any residual doubt after last week’s debate, last night made it clear that social policy for Rajoy is simply a peg on which to hang his xenophobic messages about how immigrants are depriving decent Spaniards of their rights. Again he is vulnerable, because for all the bluster and nasty insinuation, the fact remains that Zapatero’s move to regularise the hundreds of thousands of immigrants the PP preferred to leave in unregulated limbo has been hugely beneficial for the Spanish state and social security system. To his credit, Zapatero has rejected making concessions to the PP on this issue and pointed out just how many Spanish pensions the contributions of immigrants are currently funding. It needs to be said more loudly so that the “they live better than us and what’s more my Polish woman doesn’t clean my flat properly” brigade are given something to think about.

Then there was terrorism, about which I have little more to add to what I wrote yesterday. It still amazes me slightly that the PP think they can argue that the ETA they claim to have left so weak was at the same time supposed to have been capable of the Madrid bombings. Rajoy got himself into a real mess over Iraq trying to claim that Zapatero was in favour of the war, I don’t think he made a deep impression on that point. He didn’t find the knockout blow he needed or even come close to it. Rajoy’s principal problem is that an already unattractive manner becomes doubly so when he ups the aggression level, something which he has always done when debating with Zapatero.

Then there was the finish! Mariano finished last week with a bizarre tale about his hopes for a little girl growing up safe and secure in Rajoy’s Spain. Nobody in the PP seemed to want to claim responsibility for this idea, so it was even more extraordinary to see him finish last night by telling us that this little girl was “in his head”. In both cases, the clash of styles between the debate and the closing statement could hardly be greater. Unless something quite dramatic happens in the next few days, or the opinion polls have got something seriously wrong, “La niña de Rajoy” may well turn out to be his only political legacy.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....The Greatest Fraud Of All

With the second electoral debate between Zapatero and Rajoy set for this evening, the latest opinion polls are looking better for the governing PSOE. The advantage they have seems to have settled at around 4% over the Partido Popular (PP), although some polls still put it lower. If this reflects the reality of voting intentions then the elections will leave things pretty much as they are now, with the PSOE needing allies to form a viable majority. The good news for the PSOE is that the indications on turnout in the elections are promising, with estimates of it being around 75%.

There is of course a party who would like voter participation to be considerably less than this, and PP strategist Gabriel Elorriaga was kind enough to spell out explicitly to the British press what he would never have said so openly to the Spanish media. That the PP wants potential voters of the left to stay at home on election day is hardly a surprise, but for them to confirm that they are actively seeking abstention is a sign that they realise the limits of their appeal. It seems that the only message the PP has for those who don’t support their hard right positions is “Please don’t vote”.

The debate tonight is a big one for Mariano Rajoy, his aggressive attacks last week failed to give him anything approaching a knockout blow, and the general perception was that Zapatero did better from the debate despite an uncertain performance. Tonight the tables are turned slightly as the order of intervention will allow Zapatero to have first say in each section and thus give him more opportunity to set the agenda. It’s not necessarily Rajoy’s final chance to score points in the campaign, that could come tomorrow with the announcement of the latest unemployment figures. However, the story of the polls is that the campaign is not currently going the PP’s way.

In the end one of the biggest talking points of last week’s debate was the decision by Rajoy to openly accuse Zapatero of having attacked the victims of terrorism, an accusation which he refused to withdraw. It seems amazing that following the PP’s exploitation of terrorism over the last few years they can still get away with this sort of thing without the political roof falling in on their heads. Their bogus claims to speak in the name of terrorist victims are not new, they have hidden so much of their opposition behind this shield, but it is a depressing illustration of how an important issue can be manipulated to such extremes without apparently affecting the willingness of many people to vote for them.

At least now many victims have had enough and are starting to speak out against the fraudulent way in which the PP has attempted to use their suffering for its own political objectives. The PP only recognises as victims those who support these objectives, such as the leadership of the AVT. Those victims of the Madrid bombings or ETA who refused to accept the conspiracy theories that the PP and their media friends promoted are simply airbrushed out of the photo, and of course denied any funding by those administrations that the PP controls.

Rajoy used as support for his accusation the claim that Zapatero had negotiated politically with ETA, a claim backed up with the blatant lie that no other Spanish government had ever done this before. Irony of ironies, Rajoy’s main advisor in last week’s debate was a certain Pedro Arriola. Now Mr Arriola knows a thing or two about negotiating with ETA, he was a member of the team sent by José Maria Aznar to talk face to face with ETA in Switzerland in 1999. So the question naturally arises, if they didn’t negotiate politically with ETA at this meeting, what were they discussing? Perhaps the weather? Or Athletic Bilbao’s prospects for that season? Some analysts felt that Zapatero could have responded much more strongly on this issue than he did in last week’s encounter. Perhaps tonight he will.

More Election Songs

Great animation in this one - watch out for Espe taking care of Gallardón.