Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Fast Eddie Makes His Move

The departure of Eduardo Zaplana yesterday from the parliamentary group of the Partido Popular (PP) should not have come as a great surprise to anyone. Zaplana was already finished politically, having been edged out of his job as parliamentary spokesperson and having lost the war for control over the Valencian PP to Francisco Camps. El País claims today that Zaplana is leaving because he is discontented with the direction in which Mariano Rajoy is taking the PP. This may or may not be the case, but anyone who has studied his political career will also be aware that the prospect of a reported annual salary of a million euros with Telefónica will probably have had some influence on his decision. My first reaction to the appointment was to wonder what Zaplana could possibly offer to Telefónica. According to El País it’s his connections to Berlusconi – again I have no way of knowing whether this is true or not but I can at least say that it sounds like it could be.

Meanwhile, economics super signing Manuel Pizarro continues to be one of those left without a position by Rajoy. I read a report the other day of a conversation between the two men where Rajoy is said to have opened the chat by saying “What are you going to do now Manolo?”, to which Pizarro is said to have replied along the lines of “I was hoping you might tell me that!” The problem that Rajoy has, even the new hard talking Rajoy, is to get it through to Pizarro that he is simply not very good politically, as the election campaign demonstrated. Putting him in any position where he might be exposed is a significant risk, so the most likely outcome is that he will be left on the backbenches until he resigns and goes back to counting his money. Pizarro of course left a lucrative position with Telefónica to come and join the PP’s election campaign, Fast Eddie Zaplana saw his chance and took it before Pizarro was able to beat him to it.

El Dos De Mayo....Madrid 1808, Guerra Y Territorio

Kicking off my summary of the exhibitions surrounding the Dos de Mayo bicentenary is this one at the Museo de Historia in the Calle Fuencarral. It’s a free exhibition and runs until the 15th September. The first thing you learn from the exhibition is the importance of good cartography for any military campaign. When Napoleon decided to take full control of Spain the only decent cartography that existed for the Iberian Peninsula concerned the frontiers and sections of the coastline; there were hardly any maps of the interior. Napoleon’s army counted with units whose job it was to survey the countries they were so busily invading and so it was that many of the first quality maps of inland Spain were a product of the French army. Even today many national mapping agencies are either part of the armed forces or have historical links to them.

Maps are the main focus of this exhibition, but there is also a fascinating scaled model from 1830 of the city of Madrid. The model really brings home the small size of the city 200 years ago bounded as it was by Retiro, what is now the area of Plaza Dos del Mayo, the Palacio Real, Principe Pio and the Puerta de Toledo. Some of the maps on display show the villages of Chamartin, Vallecas or Hortaleza lying quite clearly some distance from the city. In addition there is a visual guide to events in Madrid on the 2nd May 1808 showing how the day developed in different parts of the city. Even if you are not interested in cartography there are still interesting things to see here.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

El Dos De Mayo....The Bicentenary

This week sees the two hundredth anniversary of the Dos de Mayo uprising in Madrid against the French occupation; the event that sparked the Peninsular War. South of Watford is joining the commemoration and I intend to post on some of the exhibitions and events which have been organised. In addition I hope to write a bit about the different interpretations of these events and the war which followed them. As part of this task I have set myself the personal objective of not directly mentioning the name of Es*e*a*za A*ui*re, not so easy considering her attempts to use the bicentenary to attract attention to herself. Apart from the official events, we have the threat of a fascist march for later in the week and it remains to be seen whether the now traditional botellón and confrontation with the riot police in the Plaza del Dos de Mayo will take place this year.

On The Trail Of The Last Tuna

The release of a Basque fishing boat captured by pirates off the coast of Somalia has attracted a lot of attention here for the drama surrounding the events and over whether a ransom has been paid to the pirates or not. Few people seem to ask the question of what the hell a Basque fishing boat is doing in the Indian Ocean in the first place. The roots of what has happened lie in overfishing, and in the reluctance of governments and the fishing industry to deal with that issue whilst there is still a single fish left in the sea.

An ever smaller part of the (wild) fish that is consumed in Europe actually comes from European waters. As fish stocks have declined sharply in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the fishing fleets (of which the Spanish is one of the biggest) have to go ever further a field in order to maintain themselves. The European Union has paid “aid” to a succession of African governments in return for these surrendering the fishing rights in their territorial waters. The unemployed local fishermen are left to their own devices, and in some cases they turn to using their boats as people carriers; the African immigrants arriving on the shores of the Canary Islands are in part a consequence of this.

In the case of tuna the situation is serious enough to drive fishing boats as far as the dangerous Somali coast. There seems to be an absolute unwillingness on the part of those involved to come to terms with the reality that they are dealing in a finite resource. That they should be in these waters fishing is bad enough, the suggestion that they should now do so with military protection is simply crazy. It says a lot about the way these things work that the best protection for the remaining tuna stocks may turn out to be the Somali pirates.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Let Me Through, I'm A Priest!

Looking back at my most recent posts I find that not as many as I thought are about the antics of Esperanza Aguirre. Clearly something needs to be done to redress this situation, so let’s take a look at the latest advances in health care in Madrid. It was announced last week that Espe, being the formidable defender of individual freedom that she is, has signed an agreement with the Catholic Church in Madrid which will permit priests to belong to the ethics committees in public hospitals in the region. These committees have to take important decisions on issues such as palliative care for the terminally ill, or on the issue of abortion. I can just see it now, the priest taking his time and looking at all the arguments to decide on whether to support an abortion or not. It's a policy development that might have been considered a tad reactionary even in the time of the Black Death.

I think following this decision there is definitely a gap in the market for an insurance policy promising immediate evacuation from Madrid in the event of serious illness. It’s bad enough being sick without having someone overseeing your case who decides that as Jesus received no palliative care on the cross then it will be spiritually enriching for the rest of us to die in agony too. That’s assuming they don’t have to operate. If you need surgery in one of Espe’s new privatised hospitals you’d better hope that the person who drives down to collect the sterilised medical equipment from one of the remaining public hospitals hasn’t taken the day off sick themselves. Rumours that priests will also soon be involved in carrying out police investigations or in deciding tactics for Real Madrid’s next game are not so crazy that they can be safely discarded in Espe’s empire. Those of you who live elsewhere in Spain may feel safe, but remember that Madrid is just the laboratory where La Lideresa practises for what she hopes will be bigger opportunities to come.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Democracy Begins At Home

Supporters of the idea that Esperanza Aguirre should contest the leadership of the Partido Popular (PP) have in recent days energetically launched the cause of improving internal democracy in their party. They call for the introduction of a system of primaries in the PP, permitting ordinary party members to directly elect the leader of the party without leaving such matters for party congresses. Ever eager to help in such situations, South of Watford presents today a case study demonstrating the appalling lack of internal democracy that currently prevails in the PP.

The case study begins by selecting a region on which to focus, so let’s spin the Wheel of Political Fortune! A… B… C… D… E… F… G… H… I… J… K… L… M… Ma… Mad… Madrid, the wheel has stopped on Madrid. Lucky for Murcia. Our study has as its principal exhibit the electoral process used to elect the current president of the PP in Madrid. Travelling back in time we find ourselves in the autumn of 2004 as the election of the president of the PP for the region of Madrid gets closer. The candidates can be identified as E.A. and M.C, the latter being a close associate of another prominent member of the regional party, A.R.G. Suddenly, after a closed doors session of the regional council, the number of candidates is reduced to one, E.A. presents herself for election at the party congress without opposition. She gets 92% of the votes cast, and not a single vote against, a result which would not perhaps have fully satisfied a Brezhnev or a Ceaucescu but which was considered sufficiently convincing. So there we have it, a scandalous manipulation of the democratic process to impose a candidate in this way. Let’s hope Aguirre’s supporters take up the issue and organise a fresh democratic election in Madrid as soon as possible.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What Are They Going To Do About Acebes?

We know that Mariano Rajoy is forming a new team to accompany him on his long march through the political wilderness. There is, however, still one significant piece of the puzzle missing. It is widely assumed that the current general secretary of the PP, Angel Acebes, is going to be replaced at some point by a new Rajoy appointee. So far, there has been no confirmation of this, and there seems to be an expectation that it may be announced at the PP congress in June when Rajoy hopes to get the support of his party.

The reasons for moving Acebes out of the way are fairly clear. Short of putting a huge flashing neon sign on top of the PP headquarters with the legend “lies, 11-m, manipulation” the next best thing is to allow Angel Acebes to be the public face of the party; such is his association with the attempt to spin the train bombings for electoral advantage. But the problem is that Acebes has one great virtue, at least from the PP point of view. He is tremendously loyal to the party, and can probably never be accused of putting his own interests above those of the PP. Given what is happening in his party at the moment that makes him almost unique.

All of this talk about “skipping a generation” and bringing younger faces to the party leadership is a little bit bogus, and the case of Acebes only emphasises this. Angel Acebes isn’t even 50 years old yet, which for a politician makes him relatively young. His shifty sidekick Eduardo Zaplana, who resigned his post before he could be booted out, is only 52; again hardly at retirement age. The generation that is being skipped is that which is associated with the disastrous last couple of years of Jose Maria Aznar’s government, regardless of how old they are they are tarnished by association with that period. There is of course still one exception to this rule (at least for the moment), the party leader himself.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Water On The Brain

Now that I’ve recovered from my soaking in Barcelona the other day I can take a more reasonable look at the Mediterranean water crisis and its associated political fallout. The national government and its regional equivalent in Cataluña have got themselves into a mess over the proposal to pipe drinking water to Barcelona from the River Ebro. It was an inept start by the Catalan government that set the whole issue rolling; they started preliminary work on a transfer from a tributary of the Ebro without telling anyone what they were doing, even the people whose land they were surveying. Apart from setting different areas of Cataluña against each other, they had selected a river that further downstream runs through the province of Zaragoza – outside of their control.

The Partido Popular (PP) then predictably seized on the proposal to transfer water from the Ebro because the government had cancelled a scheme a few years back to do a connection between the Ebro and Valencia and Murcia. The government’s plans for water shortages on the Mediterranean coast are now almost entirely based around desalination plants, rather than transfers from rivers. Unfortunately the cancellation of the old transfer plan means that the word “trasvase” has become taboo, so in the case of the solution for Barcelona a different word had to be found and someone came up with “conducción” to describe what was being proposed.

Now, despite the noise from the PP, there are very significant differences between what is being suggested for Barcelona and the old PP plan for the Ebro. The transfer to Barcelona is going to be temporary as it is intended to fill the gap until a desalination plant comes on line next year. A more important difference is that the transfer is for drinking water for the city and comes from water that has already been assigned for use so it won’t affect the flow of the river. This is not water that is being taken to underpin an unsustainable construction boom or to make sure that golf courses built in dry places don’t turn brown. It is to ensure that a major city has drinkable reserves.

The PP wants people to think that Barcelona gets what Valencia and Murcia are denied. The reality is very different; apart from anything else these latter regions have received transfers of water when they need it on several occasions – from the River Tajo. The big problem with transfers from rivers is that, apart from ecological side-effects, they are tremendously unreliable. Despite the recent rains, the Ebro would have provided virtually no water to regions further down the coast had the PP’s plan been implemented – because for most of the last few years its flow has been below the limit at which excess water could have been transferred. The recent drought has affected the whole Mediterranean region, and that includes the Ebro; much of whose water runs off the Pyrenees.

Back in Cataluña the reservoirs have gone up a couple of percentage points with the water that didn’t fall on my head last week – not to mention some impressively large hail stones! Esquerra Republicana (ERC) seems determined to continue their game of participating in the Catalan government and aligning themselves with the opposition at the same time. So they will support a demonstration against the proposed scheme to solve Barcelona’s problem that has been agreed by the administration they form part of. Some of this may just be due to their own internal problems following the general election but there have to be limits to the game - at some point they might have to decide between the official cars or the street, and it can be cold and wet out there on the street.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I think it’s time to have a post about Esperanza Aguirre, everybody else is talking about her so I don’t see why this blog should be any different? I have to say that I have been surprised recently by PP leader Mariano Rajoy, quite pleasantly surprised in some ways, because of his forthright and vehement attacks on Aguirre and her media backers. This came to a head at the weekend when Rajoy more or less invited those who are not happy with the direction the party is going in to take a walk and form their own parties. He didn’t mention Aguirre by name, but few doubt that she was his target. Had Rajoy been a king he would long ago have gone down in history with the title of “Mariano the Indecisive”, but since the election defeat a new Rajoy has been born. Which is not to say that I like him any better, but at least on one issue we share a more or less common position; that’s one more than existed a few short weeks ago.

Everyone knows that Aguirre wants to be leader of the PP, and the coy game she is playing at the moment is almost certainly just because she is waiting to see whether enough support can be drummed up amongst the delegates for June’s PP conference that are being elected this week. 600 is the magic number, that’s how many delegates she needs to be able to challenge Rajoy for the leadership. Madrid has only a little over 200 out of a total of 3000, so Aguirre’s control over that region’s party machine is not enough. An attack on the Andalucian party by one of her supporters last week will hardly have helped her cause as that region is entitled to over 400 delegates alone. An additional problem is that it’s difficult to canvass for support when officially you are proclaiming that you have no intention of standing.

Appearing on prime time television last night Aguirre continued with her game, whilst clearly revelling in the way in which she is attracting attention. In amongst the rest of her deliberately ambiguous statements she did let slip that the PP candidate for the next election does not get definitively decided this year, as there has to be another party congress in 3 years time. There we have Plan B in the event of her calculating that June is too soon for her to take on Rajoy. That, however, would be her very last chance and things need to go badly for Mariano Rajoy in the meantime. If she decides to wait for the following party congress then we will have the interesting situation where a sizeable section of the PP will be hoping that they lose heavily in the European or Galician elections so that they can get rid of Rajoy. She is under considerable pressure at the moment from the party machinery, she expected to have a clear run at the leadership following the election but then “Mariano the Angry” decided to stand his ground.

The brazen ability that Aguirre has to make completely false statements without batting an eyelid almost provokes admiration. Her assertions the other week that the PP has no trace of homophobia and that it is the party that has done most for Cataluña were delivered from the planet Espe where nothing is quite how it seems to be. Where I could agree with her is on the need for the PP to examine the reasons for their latest defeat, but there is a queue here – they should start by asking themselves why they lost the 2004 election. Meanwhile her media backers have turned the heat on Rajoy, Federico Jiménez Losantos declared the other day that he regretted ever having asked PP supporters to support Rajoy in the election. Nobody should feel too sorry for Mariano, those who are now attacking him spent the last four years freely insulting almost everyone else without Rajoy doing anything about it. I did expect a bit of blood on the carpet following the election, but events have exceeded my expectations. It’s great political theatre, and the show could run for years.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Whilst recovering from AVE-lag following my trip to Barcelona, I thought it would be worth letting fellow bloggers know about this opportunity to get a free subscription to the content of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. They offer the service to what they define as "web publishers" and say that those who use it will be able to link to Britannica content without readers needing a subscription. So let's put that to the test.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Madrid Nationalist Rant

You know they're supposed to be having water problems in Barcelona right? So there I go to have a look for myself and what happens? It rains, all the time, non-stop. Meanwhile, Johnny Catalan flounces around with his "Oh I'm so thirsty I'm going to die" line and his "can we move this river here, and that lake there?". Meanwhile, out on the street the bleeding bus drivers, who I thought were supposed to be on strike anyway, are busy splashing water over anyone who gets near them and I bet you if I ask for a glass of H2O in a restaurant they'll tell me to get lost and that its all theirs. It makes my blood boil, I can tell you, there we are in Madrid with the Sahara almost at the gates of the city and do we complain?

Other news, the Italian bishops have announced that Zapatero is the loser of the Italian elections. If you add to that his failure in the last elections in France, Germany, the UK and Zimbabwe it turns out that Zappers is a real loser. On top of it all, you have the almost dead certainty that he won't win the US presidential election either! He might as well just give up.

Weather update from Barcelona: still raining.....

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Barcelona Bound

The South of Watford State of the Nation Roadshow is going to Barcelona for the rest of the week. Resisting the temptation to do live blogging on cultural and political trends from the bustling heart of the Catalan capital, I will probably just hang out, drink beer and eat paella by the beach. Until then I leave you with a variation on Spain's Eurovision entry by the Spanish comedian Gran Wyoming - it's time to do the Chiki Facha. Perhaps this version was inspired by the proposal in a village in Zaragoza to rename the street currently bearing Franco's name as the Calle Chiki-Chiki.

via A la Sombra del Tomate

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.

The Glowing Sands Of Plutonium Beach

Which Western European country once had four nuclear bombs dropped on its territory? The answer is Spain. The locality of Palomares, in Almeria, was the site of a collision in January 1966 involving a B-52 bomber and the plane that was supposed to be refuelling it. The bomber was carrying four nuclear bombs, three of which fell onto land. Of these latter bombs, the conventional explosives in two of them detonated with the result that the surrounding land was severely contaminated with uranium and plutonium. The fourth bomb fell into the sea and was the object of a lengthy search until it was recovered.

Manuel Fraga, who was Franco’s Minister of Tourism at the time of the accident, decided to bathe in the sea off Palomares together with the American ambassador to show that there was nothing to worry about. He’s still alive, and he certainly doesn’t glow in the dark. It would also probably be unfair to attribute his daft political views solely to the effects of radioactivity. The Americans gave an undertaking to remove all of the contaminated soil, and did indeed remove a substantial quantity of earth. Spain doesn’t have the resources to deal with plutonium, that tends to be a prerogative of those nations that possess nuclear weapons.

Come on in, the water's really hot!

Time passed and the incident was more or less forgotten. Then, with pressure from (what else would it be?) the construction industry to build on the affected area it was decided to carry out some rigorous tests in the area to check whether it was suitable for residential use 40 years after the accident. The result of these tests showed that the US had, er, “forgotten” something as they shipped out following the cleanup operation. Two sizeable trenches containing contaminated materials were left behind without any protection or warning to the local inhabitants. Perhaps the construction plans for Palomares will be put on hold as a result of the building industry crisis, in any case it looks like it’s still a bit early to be buying a dream home in the Plutonium Beach Resort.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Press Wars On The Right

One of the most persistent myths of the political right in Spain is that the media is under the control of the left. Until the emergence of Público a few months ago, the choice of national newspapers available to buyers at any street kiosk in Madrid consisted of one centre left paper (El País) and three right wing papers (ABC, La Razon and El Mundo). The competition between these last three got much stiffer in the last four years, and partially reflected political struggles between different sectors of the right as well as commercial interest.

ABC, which had always been regarded as the most conservative of Spanish papers, shifted its position to become closer to that wing of the Partido Popular (PP) around Madrid’s mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón. The new alignment of the paper was treated with derision by members of the El Mundo-COPE-Libertad Digital axis, and ABC was alone amongst the right wing press in rejecting the absurd conspiracy theories of this axis concerning the Madrid bombings. This latter stance actually made it probably the best national paper when it came to reporting the trial of the bombings. However, such a sensible position in times of political tension and with a bloodthirsty right eager for revenge ended up costing the paper readers, largely to the benefit of El Mundo. So shortly before the general election in March ABC poached back some of those who had originally left the paper to start La Razon and moved itself more to the right again. The experience of ABC suggests that there is simply no market in Spain for a newspaper that promotes moderate centre-right values!

The circulation war between these papers is going to be intense, and the infighting inside the PP is helping to mark positions for the battle to come. ABC for the moment is more or less loyal to PP leader Mariano Rajoy, as is La Razon despite it having formed part of the conspiracy theorists alliance. La Razon’s position comes from its director being personally close to Rajoy. El Mundo jumped the gun together with its allies when it was widely assumed that Rajoy would step down following his election defeat. Caught unawares by Rajoy’s surprise decision to stay on they had a couple of weeks of indecision before openly coming out in support of Esperanza Aguirre as the alternative candidate. The key factor in their decision is undoubtedly the realisation that Rajoy intends to distance himself from this faction of the PP and the prospect of them losing their influence over party affairs means that Pedro J Ramirez and Federico Jiménez Losantos are pushing hard for a candidate who will better represent their interests.

Both Ramirez and Losantos have created a marriage of convenience between political and commercial interests which they would like to see placing them in the role of political kingmakers. These are not people who are content with just reporting and commenting on the events around them, they want to control and shape those events, the conspiracy theories of the last parliament formed part of this effort. Being in political opposition is not fun at the best of times, but the key thing for these media groups at the moment is that we are in the midst of a digital revolution when all sorts of lucrative business opportunities and franchises are available. Behind a thin rhetorical veneer of “España y libertad” the media friends of the hard right of the PP are desperate to get their piece of the action, and to do that they need to get their people in positions of power.

Friday, April 11, 2008

It's Zapatero At The Second Attempt

As was widely expected, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has been elected as Spanish Prime Minister today on the second vote, having failed to get a majority of votes in the Congreso de Diputados on Wednesday. In the second vote he only required more votes in favour than against, and the abstention of several parties meant that he was elected to the post with the sole support of his own party. At least this time he got all of the PSOE votes, one member missed Wednesday’s session because strong winds prevented her from leaving the Canary Islands, which is an original excuse for not turning up to work. The last time a prime minister was elected without a majority of parliament in the early 1980’s, the session was interrupted by armed civil guards and marked the beginning of an attempted coup. Things are a great deal quieter these days.

The PSOE has spent the last week or so attempting to promote the idea that the way the vote has turned out demonstrates that the new government has autonomy of action. They are not tied to any unfavourable deals with parties that give them a guaranteed majority in return for a high political price. That’s one way of looking at it, but in reality this spin is just creating a virtue out of necessity. The main potential allies for the PSOE are the Catalan nationalists of CiU or the Basque nationalists of the PNV. Doing a deal with the former is difficult because it might undermine the current Catalan government, and with the latter there are serious problems over the PNV’s proposal to hold a referendum on sovereignty. Nevertheless, both these parties abstained in the vote today and lots of kind words have been exchanged between them and Zapatero in the debates this week. Running a minority government is tough if you have to negotiate your majority for every single measure you want to pass.

Those who voted against Zapatero are the Partido Popular (PP), the one (ex-PSOE) member of Unión Progreso and Democracia, and Esquerra Republicana de Cataluña. We should get the announcement of the new government this weekend, some rumours say it will be a two year administration with a significant remodelling for the second half of the parliament. There are few signs so far of any significant changes, although Zapatero’s circle has been very discreet and there have been few leaks. So that’s over with, now we have a government we can get back to watching the PP’s internal wars; far more interesting than anything else at the moment.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Death By Unnatural Causes

Two people from the province of León have died recently of BSE (mad cow disease) within the space of a few weeks. The announcement of the cause of death has provoked a flurry of official announcements intended to convince the public that there is no risk, and the emphasis of almost all of these announcements has been on defending the meat industry rather than putting public health concerns first. We are told that the two latest victims of the disease were infected before more stringent controls were introduced in the year 2000. The director general of health services for Castilla León even unilaterally adapted the incubation period of the disease to 8-10 years to try and establish as fact that these people must have been infected before the new controls were introduced. He achieved his aim as sections of the press duly reported this as if it was fact. In reality many sources put the incubation period at 5-10 years, and one page I have seen with information on the disease puts it at 2-8 years; a period which would not reassure anyone about the effectiveness of controls in slaughterhouses.

It’s a familiar pattern to those of us who lived through the original BSE crisis in Britain. I can still vividly remember the Tory minister John Gummer force feeding hamburgers to his children in a bid to convince the public that there was no problem with eating beef. I wonder how they are doing? The almost criminal way in which the government of the time treated the issue in their attempts to defend above all the interests of the food industry is enough reason to treat official announcements with distrust. However, another reason why I suspect the information we are given is that I have a bit of inside knowledge about how things worked in the UK in the aftermath of the initial BSE crisis.

Not a lot of people outside of the industry know this, but much of the meat hygiene inspection in British abattoirs in the 1990’s was being done by Spanish vets. This was a result of the privatisation of the inspection service, in order to make things much more “efficient” it was deemed necessary to give huge sums of money to private companies who then employed the cheapest vets they could find to do the work. These vets were then sent in to try and implement the regulations in rural abattoirs where people who came from the next village were often viewed with suspicion, never mind foreigners coming in and telling them how to kill their animals! The vets weren’t even there for most of the time so anything could happen; regardless of the best efforts of the vets concerned. Yet another triumph for free enterprise, it may still be Spanish vets doing the job although I suspect that they have probably found cheaper Eastern Europeans to do it now.

I’m not suggesting that inspection in the Spanish abattoirs works in the same way, for all I know it may work fantastically well. However, with Spain we are talking about a country where there is always a significant distinction between a law existing on something, and it actually being applied. None of this is intended to suggest that there is a serious problem now, even with the latest deaths the total number of fatalities attributed to the disease in Spain is still only three (although you have to qualify this with the likelihood that others may well have died from the disease without it being diagnosed as BSE). I generally still have more confidence in the food industry in Spain, because not so many products disguise what they are containing as in the UK. Despite this, I would have thought that two deaths occurring so close together and in the same province would at least provoke some concern about whether the control system is actually working or not.

So that will be two steak fillets and a kilo of reassuring lies please. Buen provecho.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

That List Of People Who Are Not Candidates

The number of web pages dedicated to politicians who have no intention "at the present time" of standing as candidates to lead the Partido Popular seems to be multiplying. In the interests of political balance following my plug for a different page the other day I think it's only fair to point readers of this blog in the direction of Gallardon2012. In the interests of completely prejudiced, yet at the same time rational, political imbalance I also encourage readers to take a look at the eminently sensible No A Esperanza en 2012. This has been a public service announcement.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Crisis Of Denial

One the dam bursts there is little you can do, except wait until the flood passes and hope it doesn’t do too much damage. The collapse of the bubble market in Spanish housing is becoming more evident with each fresh piece of news, to the extent that even the industry itself has finally been forced to acknowledge that prices are falling. The latest figures on completed sales show a dramatic decline and most predictions on what will happen suggest that the crisis will carry on at least through 2009, and may even get worse.

The IMF has suggested that housing prices in Spain could fall by as much as 20%, the industry estimates are of course lower than this as those who have most to lose attempt to minimise the scale of what is happening. It’s a delicate game in a market that depends so much on consumer confidence in what is going to happen, once you acknowledge there is a serious problem that also increases the risk of the problem becoming worse as buyers decide to wait for prices to fall further. Add to this the fact that many of the statistics now emerging on completed sales are already out of date; they reflect the position as it was several months ago. Meanwhile, the credit squeeze means that many construction companies and promoters are facing difficulties as they had severely overstretched themselves; the assumption always being that this bubble is different from the last one and that there is no end in sight.

Some of the effects of the crisis were reported on yesterday in El País in a piece focusing on the ridiculously unsustainable development carried out in Seseña and the enormous project of Marina D’Or in Castellón. Already advertising strategies have changed and all sorts of offers are being made by promoters in an attempt to shift what has already been built. Given the scale of some of these offers, you can only wonder about the profit margins many of these companies were working with when the market was booming. As if this wasn’t sufficient evidence of what is going on, it has now been reported that the huge quantity of €500 notes circulating in Spain has finally stopped rising, surely a sign that things are not going well in a sector awash with money of unclear origin?

The effects of the crisis are grim for those who have bought at a higher price than the market currently supports. The banking sector claims that it is in no danger and banks in Spain are required to provision quite heavily against potential problems. However, that security would become less sure if there was a significant increase in mortgage defaults. The good side of the crisis is that new buyers benefit from an end to constantly spiralling prices, and the determined attempts to extend the suburban frontiers of Madrid into all available countryside will hopefully be set back for a few years at least.

Each new economic growth estimate seems to be a little bit lower than the previous one and trying to deal with some of the consequences of the end to the boom is going to be the main economic priority for the new government. At times like these a balanced budget is no longer an issue, and investment plans can be expected for social housing and construction projects to try and keep the construction sector of the economy active. This will be accompanied by proposals to help mortgage payers in difficulties extend their payment time. No one currently knows whether we are talking about a slowdown or a slide into recession, but believers in the property bubble are few and far between these days.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Candidate For A Day

For a moment it seemed that Mariano Rajoy had a rival to be leader of the Partido Popular (PP). María Cristina Castro, an ordinary member of the PP took Rajoy at his word with his challenge to all comers and announced that she would contest the post. The Spanish pioneer of insulting people and getting well paid for it, Federico Jimenez Losantos, then decided that Castro was the kind of easy target he likes and set about ridiculing her from his show on the COPE radio station. Castro hit back and phoned the show to protest about her treatment, but following the clash with Losantos it seems she started receiving threatening emails and subsequently decided that maybe being a candidate wasn’t such a great idea. That’s her Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame over with.

Rumour has it that those appointed to design the new party statutes for the forthcoming PP congress are not going to make it easy for anyone tempted to follow Castro’s example. We can’t have this democracy thing getting out of hand, there are traditions to be respected here. Meanwhile, Rajoy had lunch on Wednesday with someone who has not declared herself as a candidate but who has reportedly said that Mariano will be the first to know should she decide she wants the job. Should she take the plunge, there is already a web page up and running in support of her campaign –

Friday, April 04, 2008

Let's Get Together And Form A Group

Two of the parties that suffered particularly badly in Spain’s general elections managed to find a solution this week for at least some of the consequences of their bad election result. Izquierda Unida (IU) and Esquerra Republicana de Cataluña (ERC) were set to be deprived of the entitlement to form their own parliamentary groups as a result of not meeting the requirements for having a separate group; 5 parliamentary seats and 5% of the vote in the areas where they stand. All parties that don’t reach this base are doomed to form part of the Grupo Mixto. The consequences of this can be relatively serious in terms of parliamentary time as the Grupo Mixto has to divide its assignation between all the parties that form it. This results in the profile of each party being much lower as they have to wait for their turn to present initiatives or question ministers. Even more serious is the financial impact as each separate parliamentary group receives generous financial support for its activities.

The prospect of the loss of their respective groups forced IU and ERC into discussions about forming one together. They reached the minimum number of members of parliament but fell just 0.03% short of the percentage of vote needed to comply with regulations. Sometimes this doesn’t matter as the regulations can be applied with a certain degree of flexibility. However, this time the solution found was to invite the Galician Nationalists of the BNG to add their small percentage to the total and thus meet all the requirements. Now the Galicians have no intention of remaining in the new grouping, as soon as it has been formed they will return to the Grupo Mixto; but they will take with them a share of the parliamentary subsidy of the group they have helped to form. Confusing, but everyone is happy.

It Was A Peñalara Kind Of Day

I don't know how the weather was yesterday in the rest of the country, but here in Madrid it was a perfect day for being in the mountains. Warm spring sunshine with (melting) snow and fantastic visibility. From the top of Peñalara we could clearly see Segovia city, the peaks of Gredos and those of the northern frontier of Guadarrama around Somosierra. It may be the highest point of Madrid but it's surprisingly accessible, take a train to Cercedilla, connect with the beautiful train ride up to the Puerto de Cotos and from there you can be on top of Peñalara in a little over 2 hours.

Peñalara and a frozen lagoon

Looking towards the Bola del Mundo and the Puerto de Navacerrada

The Cuerda Larga seen from Peñalara

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

No Buses For Bono

The new Spanish parliamentary session kicked off yesterday with the election of the President of the Congreso de Diputados. The lucky winner was José Bono, although he was elected only with the votes of the governing PSOE and one other member; without reaching an overall majority. None of the regional nationalist parties was prepared to openly support the election of Bono, despite concessions by the PSOE to allow some of them representation on the Mesa del Congreso which governs parliamentary affairs.

Bono is a politician who has a clear self-esteem problem, but in the opposite sense to that which is normally seen as problematical. His candidacy as president provoked dismay amongst many, including members of his own party, as he is not noted for showing restraint and tends to revel in the limelight. The nationalist parties dislike him because he represents the most Españolista wing of the PSOE, those for whom the unity of “Ejpaña” is sacred. However, the PSOE is not unduly upset that he was elected without nationalist support, it demonstrates the “autonomy” that they are looking for despite not having a parliamentary majority. Zapatero himself may yet be voted in next week as head of government with what they call a simple majority (i.e. more votes than any other candidate).

I find it hard to understand why Zapatero insisted on presenting Bono for this post. There was no real need for him to offer Bono anything at all, especially after the latter failed to carry his former stronghold of Castilla la Mancha in last month’s election. It certainly doesn’t seem the best way of keeping him quiet. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that Bono has got a very rewarding position. Above all financially, with the salary and associated benefits the President of the Congreso does significantly better than the Prime Minister or anyone else in an official position. All he has to do is be driven between multiple ceremonies and cocktail parties in his official car, shout out “¿Por qué no te callas?” occasionally to one of the assembled “señorias” and life is good!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

PPravda Reports....Forward To The 16th Party Congress!

The comrades in some villages are working hard, but in others they are not!” The Dear Leader Comrade Mariano Rajoy opened yesterday’s meeting of the Party Central Committee with his incisive analysis of last month’s elections to the Supreme Soviet. He urged delegates to take seriously the tasks of the Three Renovations and the Five Modernisations. However, this is not the most important result of this meeting, for the Dear Leader also announced the appointment of Comrade Soraya Who? to lead the task of opposition to the traitor Zapatero in the Supreme Soviet.

The appointment of Comrade Who? was greeted with unanimous applause by all delegates. “I’m very excited” said Comrade Who?, “My mummy and daddy will be very proud when I tell them!” She laughed shyly when asked whether she was really the internationally famous “niña de Rajoy”. There were enthusiastic reactions from other members of the Central Committee. Comrade La Lideresa Esperanza Aguirre said “I’m sure this little girl must be very pleased with herself, now if you’ll excuse me I have more important matters to attend to.

The Dear Leader also announced that the vital 16th Congress of the Party will be held in June in Valencia. This city is of course the heartland of the loyal Comrade Francisco Camps, who has done so much to transform the coastline of this once depressed region with his progressive policy of “One golf course for every two chalets”. Comrade Camps warmly welcomed the decision to choose his city, saying that “Valencia will be the launch pad for the Four Renovations and the Three Modernisations. United behind the Dear Leader we will defeat the Traitor Zapatero and his henchmen such as Rodolfo Chikilicuatre!” The meeting concluded with a rousing chorus of the party anthem “The Past Is Ours”.