Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Galicia Prepares For Elections

Is it election time again already? Well only in Galicia, if press predictions are accurate the elections for Galicia’s regional government are going to be brought forward to the autumn even though they do not need to be held before next year. Although the voting will only take place in that region, the results will have an impact on national politics, as it is the first major electoral test since the general election in March.

The reasons for bringing forward the elections are purely political, the current alliance between the PSOE and the Galician nationalists (BNG) is quite capable of seeing out its full term; but the PSOE in particular has strong incentives to go for an earlier poll. Reason number one is that the economic situation is expected to get worse next year, and the Galician PSOE will be keen to avoid as much as possible a punishment from voters aimed more at the national government. If circumstances are not going to get better then you might as well go for it. Number two is a possible clash between the Galician election and the equivalent elections that need to be held in the Basque Country. This is where things become a bit of a gamble, because the possible timing of the Basque elections is also variable and depends on the legal wrangling over the proposal by the Basque government to hold a referendum. This issue is currently up before the Constitutional Court. Again, the Galicians will not want events elsewhere to overshadow their own campaign.

Not so keen on early elections in Galicia is the Partido Popular. PP leader Mariano Rajoy has been quick to downplay any suggestion that his position might be affected by a poor result in his home territory. He doesn’t sound very confident about his party’s chances, making it clear that he is not the candidate and distancing himself carefully. Of course a bad result there could restart the campaign against him, Galicia used to be a PP stronghold and a failure to recover control will renew criticism of Rajoy’s lack of electoral appeal. Galicia could hurt him much more than the results of the Basque elections or those for the European Parliament where heavy abstention could easily mean that the generally more loyal voters of the PP give Rajoy a victory.

Colin over at Thoughts from Galicia thinks that there will be a backlash against the nationalists because of their policies on language use in the region. I’m not so sure, their vote held up very strongly in the general election in March, and nationalist voters are generally more motivated in the regional polls. Those who voted for the BNG are not those likely to object to greater promotion of the Galician language, but we shall see. As yet, we still don’t have the official announcement.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Madrid Airport Accident....The Reactions

Following last week’s crash at Madrid airport, there has been an interesting debate taking place in sections of the Spanish blogosphere and press about where the limits lie for media coverage of this kind of disaster. Much of the discussion focuses on the invisible line that exists between genuine journalism seeking to bring the reality of events home to people, and the exploitative variety that squeezes tragedy for every drop of sensationalist content it contains. Unfortunately, those who participate in such debates are not usually those responsible for the worst variety of ambulance chasing coverage, or the endless harassment of victims relatives.

A different brand of sensationalism is seen from El Mundo’s reporting, from the moment of the crash the paper has sought to tie the accident to Spanair’s internal crisis. This has now developed a stage further to (predictably) aim fire at the government with suggestions that a lack of control has enabled defective planes to operate. They seem to have decided that a combination of company and government negligence is the most newsworthy explanation for the crash, even though there is as yet no evidence to support any of this. They weren’t the first on the loony right to try and blame Zapatero for what has happened; they almost certainly won’t be the last.

Personally I believe that it’s only a matter of time before a major accident results from the current trends in the aviation industry, if it hasn’t already happened. A business model based around constantly cutting costs and minimising the amount of time aircraft spend on the ground is just not compatible with passenger safety taking priority. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the case here though. Indeed, the fact that the captain was able to abort the first take-off because of what seems to have been a minor technical alert is in some ways more reassuring than worrying, as it shows that those in control of the craft had the last word on when it should take off. Less reassuring is the report that the problem, in an anti-icing temperature control, was solved simply by disconnecting the offending item.

The investigation can easily take months to conclude its work, especially given that not much remains of the crashed plane. The initial reports of the crash being caused by an engine exploding have now been refuted, a video taken by AENA (the Spanish airports authority) shows no sign of an explosion before the plane hit the ground. It seems that for some reason the craft lacked sufficient power to take off, managing to leave the ground for a matter of seconds before coming down again and catching fire as a result of the impact with the ground. There have been reports that one of the black boxes has been damaged, and Spanair have announced that the tapes recording what was said by the pilots in the cabin just before the crash will never be made public. Meanwhile, the AENA video seems to have been shown to everyone from the King to the government to the Mayor of Madrid, but the judge investigating the crash had to demand to be given a copy for his investigation.

The identification of the victims is taking much longer than expected, this is because of the effects of the fire in the aftermath of the accident. Nevertheless, there is a determination to ensure that correct identification is done wherever possible, DNA tests are being used as confirmation. The disastrously hurried, and erroneous, identification of many victims following the crash in Turkey of a plane carrying Spanish troops a few years back has left its mark. All of this creates further anguish for families of the dead as they await the official confirmation of their loss, and there have been several stormy meetings between representatives of the company and the families.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Things You Achieve With A Bit Of Iniciativa

We’ve been given another lesson this week on the dangers involved in trying to run a minority government. Only a last minute deal with Iniciativa per Catalunya, the Catalan wing of Izquierda Unida, avoided an unwanted appearance by Zapatero in the Spanish parliament to explain the government’s position on the funding of the country’s autonomous comunidades. Iniciativa’s deal with the government earned them some criticisms from the Catalan nationalists for breaking the common front they had tried to maintain in the battle to get a better funding deal. The same nationalists could have sided with a proposal from the Partido Popular to force Zapatero’s appearance, but in the end they decided that it wasn’t so essential and so it will be Finance Minister Pedro Solbes who will gently induce a parliamentary coma with his detailed explanation of the finer points of the issue.

The real danger for the government is that failure to present a funding plan acceptable to the Catalan parties means that they may not have sufficient parliamentary support to approve next year’s budget. It’s not the end of the world, the existing budget can always be extended, but it would be a highly symbolic demonstration of isolation for the government. Apart from that, with the economic situation expected to be even worse next year then the government budget needs to be adapted to deal with that. With tensions running high between the governing PSOE and the Basque nationalist PNV, the quickest route to a parliamentary majority still lies in an understanding with Convergencia i Unió.

All the coverage of the funding issue might lead people to believe that it’s just an issue between the government and Cataluña. This is not really the whole story, the current funding mechanism is based on a 10 year old census which doesn’t take into account the impact of most of the immigration that Spain has received in that period. Given the uneven distribution of immigration, that means that some regions are more affected than other in terms of greater demand for services that is not being adequately funded. The other key issue is that of how redistribution of income is calculated between the wealthier regions and the poorer ones. This has led to some strange alliances as the richer regions call for a system which prioritises population and which restricts the redistributive effect to key services. The poorer regions want more weight given to other factors such as geographical extension or age distribution in the population.

In the boom years the way out for the government would have been to inject more money into the system so that everyone was kept happy. Now tax revenues are falling and there isn’t a huge pot of money to solve the issue. The way forward probably lies in creating a system so complicated and with so many different factors that nobody can really understand it. This would be a Solbes kind of approach to the issue, but it may not be enough. According to their agreement with Iniciativa the government now has a three month deadline to reach an agreement with Cataluña, it’s not going to be an easy task but the chances of this government seeing out its full term could possibly depend on the outcome.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Madrid Airport Accident....The Aftermath

In the end the worst fears about the scale of yesterday’s accident have been realized, only 19 of those on board the plane have survived. The serious condition of some of the survivors suggests that the figure of 153 dead may still rise further and official identification of the victims is expected to take several days to complete. The IFEMA convention centre in Madrid has a grisly secondary role as an emergency morgue and reception centre, a role that it first played in the aftermath of the Madrid train bombings. Madrid now has a protocol based on the response to 11-M for dealing with major emergencies like yesterday.

The atmosphere in Madrid is not the same as that of 2004, even though the number of fatalities is not far short of that event. Accidents are not the same as bombings in their impact, even if the result is the same. Also, the train bombings affected many more people and caused a sense of shock in the city that yesterday’s accident has not provoked. Some of the media are being heavily criticised for their reporting, especially those that have published images of the wounded. It is quite common in Spain to see images from these kinds of event that you might not expect to be shown elsewhere, but it seems that some media have gone too far in this case. There are also some criticisms of the parade of politicians who now feel obliged to get in the way of the emergency operations in such cases, lest they be accused of not showing sufficient concern.

According to reports from witnesses, the explosion in one of the engines of the plane still appears to be the cause of the accident and the tremendous fire that followed inside the fuselage. A lot of questions are being asked about a delay to this plane leaving because of a fault that was detected and repaired before it tried to take off. It’s not at all clear whether this fault has any relationship to the cause of the accident. Spanair, the operator of the flight, is going to come under close examination too for its operational methods. The company had to suspend yesterday afternoon a meeting with the trade unions to discuss its plans to sack over 1000 employees in an attempt to cut costs. Questions will also be asked about the age of their fleet, although there is no suggestion at the moment that this has anything to do with the crash.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Accident In Madrid Airport

There has been a serious accident in Madrid's Barajas airport this afternoon. A Spanair plane that was taking off for Gran Canaria seems to have left the runway, maybe as a result of a fire in one of the engines, and depending on which media outlet you read the number of dead is being estimated at between 7 and 50, with many more injured. The plane was carrying 170 passengers, and the airport is currently in a state of emergency.

Update 17:00 - The latest estimate I have heard of the number dead in the accident is 45, although El Mundo cites a much higher figure of over 100.

Update 18:00 - The official figure of fatalities still seems to be around 45-50 although some media are still quoting much higher figures. The thesis still seems to be that of an engine that has exploded on take-off and it seems that this and the crash landing provoked a serious fire in the plane. Some reports have suggested that the airport is still operating partially, but the journalists reporting from the scene suggest this is not the case.

18:05 - I've just heard on CNN+ that the new estimate is over 90 fatalities

Digital Liberties

Having finally got round to buying my shiny new television I discovered to my delight that I am now able to watch Libertad Digital TV! Frankly, it's been a bit disappointing so far, every time I turn to it I just seem to get those tacky home shopping type adverts that you get on lots of these new channels. For things like vacuum cleaner attachments that can see round corners. Maybe the Reverend Losantos is still on holiday in Miami where he wishes pain and suffering on all of his many enemies.

The reason I am able to get this channel is because I live in the enlightened Comunidad de Madrid where television licences are distributed on the basis of loyalty to the Condesa. Those of you living in areas of Spain where TeleLosantos is not available should know that this is because you live in a region controlled by rojos, masones or nazionalistas. Or perhaps a combination of all three. Don't worry, I'll keep you posted on any developments.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Atleti's Olympic Riddle

It seemed to be a perfect plan. Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón would get his Olympic arena as a result of a giant property deal involving the demolition of Atlético Madrid’s Vicente Calderón stadium and the refurbishment of the Peineta stadium on the other side of the city. The football club would get a new stadium, which would be paid for from the flats built on the site of the old one, and this new stadium would also be the centre of Madrid’s 2016 Olympic bid. A huge amount of money would pass, albeit briefly, through Atleti’s bank account on its way to the construction companies who would do so nicely out of building the new flats and upgrading La Peineta. It was the ultimate Madrid deal, the happy convergence of speculative construction with a city administration in permanent need of ever grander projects so that no one will ever forget the reign of the pharaoh. That the club doesn’t really need a new stadium matters little, Atleti’s fans have put up with so much else in recent years this seems almost insignificant by comparison.

Suddenly the plan doesn’t look so good. Problem number one, the rights to the redevelopment of the land occupied by the Vicente Calderón are in the hands of Martinsa-Fadesa. This company is not showing much enthusiasm for building new blocks of flats at the moment. Problem number two, nobody is showing much interest in buying new flats anyway; a situation that looks unlikely to change in the near future. The funding behind the whole deal doesn’t look very secure. As if that wasn’t enough it has been reported that Gallardón no longer regards a revamped Peineta as being sufficient tribute to his wisdom and power. Following his recent trip to Beijing he now wants to have the biggest and best Olympic stadium the world has ever seen. Even with a bit of creative accounting the proceeds of the Atlético pelotazo may no longer be enough to fulfil his wishes. The search is on for companies to take the place of Martinsa, there are certainly many volunteers who will be interested in building the lavish new stadium, but those new flats down by the river are not so enticing at the moment. As for the funding gap, if the city debt is already so high who will notice anyway if they add a bit more? It’s all for a good cause.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Behind The Mountain Lies Another Mountain

I'm off to the Pyrenees again for the puente. This time the destination is Benasque and the (very imposing) peaks of Posets and Aneto. We'll see how I get on, in the meantime these are some of the images from my trip to the Valle de Tena the other week.

When you stay in the Valle de Tena, the classic accessible high mountain route to do is that which takes you up to the Refugio de Respumoso, surrounded by the high peaks of the French-Spanish border. You can start this route from the village of Sallent although you might find it easier to drive up to the Embalse de la Sarra and start from there.

As we'd done the Respumoso route at least three times, we decided to take a variant of this that shares the beginning of the route but then goes up to the Ibones (lakes) de Arriel. Don't confuse the turn off for the ibones with an earlier one that takes you up to the peak of Arriel, the lakes path comes further up the Respomuso walk. It's a steepish but not very long climb to the first lake.

Walking past the first ibon there is a second one slightly higher up, and then in turn there is a further lake surrounded by the peaks of Arriel, Palas and Balaitus.

If you walk around the final lake there is a path, slightly difficult to spot, that takes you up to a ridge and suddenly you are in France! It's a bit colder on the other side, the lake you see in the image below was still partially frozen even though we were there in the middle of July. This was one of the best walks I've done in Spain, and with the late rains this year I had never seen the Pyrenees looking so green.

We stayed in the village of Lanuza, which is not even supposed to exist. It was supposedly doomed by the construction of the reservoir on the River Gallego and part of the old village now lies beneath the water. However, the lake never reached far enough to engulf the entire village and what remains has been restored in typical Pyrenean style for tourism. This was the view from our hotel, La Casueña is not the cheapest hotel in the area but its a lovely place to stay.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Some Of My Best Friends Are Chinese

I don’t believe it, it must have been my general indifference towards the Olympics that meant that this one passed me by. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Spanish basketball team presents its “respects” to the Chinese nation!

In Spain, as in China, there is a certain resistance to losing face so incidents like this get made much worse by the excuse machine going in to overdrive to try and explain away what has happened. So we are told that they did this picture as a gesto cariñoso. Now I know that Prince Philip once told a group of British volunteers in China that they would go slitty eyed if they stayed any longer in the country, but he at least has the excuse of being a Royal and is therefore expected to say stupid things.

I have a piece of advice for the Spanish football federation. The next World Cup will be held in South Africa. If any of your sponsors suggest that the players black up their faces and dress as Zulu warriors to show the South Africans how much they love them, confiscate their passports and leave them in Madrid. Believe me, it's for the best.

Nice Palace, Where Did You Get It?

A wedding took place last Friday at the Pazo de Meirás in Galicia. What made the event newsworthy was that the bride was the great granddaughter of Franco, and the Pazo forms part of the dead dictator’s family fortune. The palace was a gift to Franco as a result of the local authorities organising a “voluntary” popular subscription to buy it, and it became the summer residence of the Franco family. The grounds were found to be a bit small for such a grand dictator, so it then became necessary to expropriate additional land surrounding the palace. It seems that those who were unwilling to surrender their land were threatened with being sent to Asturias! I can think of much worse alternatives to having to live next door to a fascist dictator, but I suspect the exile probably wouldn’t have included a lifetime’s supply of cider and fabada.

More recently the Xunta, Galicia’s regional government, have been trying to inspect the property with the intention of declaring it to be a Bien de Interés Cultural; a historic monument. This move has met with open opposition from the Franco family as it would compel them to open the property to the public for a certain number of days every month. Eventually, the Xunta’s inspectors were able to gain access to the property but the holding of last week’s wedding has been widely seen as the Franco family asserting their control over the property. It’s a curious situation, if the King of Spain is given a present then that passes to the state, but the family of a dictator is allowed to hold on forever to a property which in theory was presented to Franco as (illegitimate) head of state. It more or less confirms what we could probably call the Pinochet Principle whereby self appointed “saviours of the nation” always seem to find time to assure that being a saviour brings with it substantial economic benefits which are not always available to more conventional rulers. The spoils of war.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Gourmet Masterclass

The mystery of the missing Swiss gourmet, Pascal Henry, has finally been solved. Henry was said to have disappeared in June after eating at Ferran Adriá’s El Bulli restaurant in Roses. He left without paying the bill and leaving some of his possessions behind in the restaurant. His departure sparked a manhunt in the area around the restaurant, but then last week it emerged that he was alive and well and back in Switzerland.

The Swiss police confirmed that he was in the country via security images taken at cash machines where Henry’s card had been used. What happened next has caused a little bit of embarrassment for the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. Interpol informed the Spanish police almost a week ago that Henry had been located. However, the contact for the Mossos was not at his desk and so the news was not passed on to Cataluña. So two days later, the Mossos organised an expensive search of the area around the restaurant which apparently even included the deployment of a helicopter.

Henry left behind a bill for €250, and I can understand him leaving given that he was probably presented with a tiny portion of some unrecognisable substance aerosolled onto an enormous plate. For that sort of money you can still eat well for a whole week in Spain.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Playing Games With The Olympics

Whilst some athletes have been able to sign a petition addressed to the Chinese president, Spain’s competitors in the Olympics had the riot act read to them a few days ago by their own Olympic chief. No politics, or you go home, was his message as he repeated the old chestnut about it being time for sport to take priority over everything else. I’m not sure the Chinese government sees it that way, but in the best traditions of the Olympics making political use of the event is seen as being the prerogative of the host nation. At first it was thought that no blogs would be permitted for the athletes, but that now seems to be not the case as long as they steer clear of anything controversial.

Spain of course is an aspiring host for the games in 2016, and foreign minister Moratinos claimed yesterday that Spain was now China’s best friend in Europe. To celebrate this great leap forward we got agreement from the Chinese for the first Spanish companies to export ham to China. Let’s hope they don’t get to like it too much as it’s expensive enough already. Perhaps if they smear the ham with cabrales that will act as a deterrent. During all the protests over Tibet earlier in the year Madrid’s very own Pharoah, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, disappeared off to Beijing for a few days. He had little to say about human rights but when he saw the Olympic Stadium he was said to have uttered words along the lines of “I want one of those for my city”.

Meanwhile, back home, one of the few judges not involved in chasing De Juana Chaos instead decided to accept a case against several members of the Chinese government for their repression of the protests in Tibet. Moratinos claimed that the subject was not even raised in his meetings with Chinese representatives, so we can safely assume he won’t be attempting a citizen’s arrest during his stay in China. Maybe he will find time to watch some sport instead.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Spain At A Glance....Languages In Cataluña And The Basque Country

With all the fuss being made about the language issue in Spain, maybe its useful to see some data about which languages people actually choose to speak in different parts of the country. The CIS, which does all sorts of data gathering exercises, has carried out a study of national identity throughout the country and as part of this they asked people to state which language they considered to be their main one.

Charts code courtesy of

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Hard Times In The Bunker

It's hot outside, so come with me down into the cold - even frosty - underworld of the Foro Ermua. One of these satellite organisations set up in the past few years to agitate the issue of terrorism principally on behalf of the Partido Popular, the Foro has recently fallen victim to the same sort of infighting that has kept the PP so busy since the general election. It is a grouping that has never really excelled when it came to political tolerance. A member who wanted to stand in an election for a party that was not the PP was informed that this was incompatible with his continuing to occupy any position of responsibility in the Foro. Now however, this sectarianism has been taken a step further with the removal of the president, Iñaki Ezkerra, for having the temerity to be supportive of the new, relatively less hard line, leadership of the PP in the Basque country.

The Foro Ermua has been turned into a bunker of the extreme right. Now wait a minute. For those of you who think that this description is just South of Watford labelling decent upstanding anti-terrorist folk as being crazed rightists I should perhaps make it clear that the words are not mine; the description came from Ezkerra himself. If the cap fits you might as well use it. Ezkerra has also claimed that the Foro has been excessively generous, even careless, with some of its cocktail receptions, getting the association into some financial difficulties. Step forward the Comunidad de Madrid who have offered a significant injection of funds to help the Foro get over this difficult patch. It’s time for a Frequently Asked Question!

Q. “This Comunidad de Madrid, the one that is picking up the tab for the cocktails, is it by any chance related to the one that denies any funding at all for the main victims association of the Madrid bombings?”

A. “Yes.”

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Judicial Silly Season

It was a little bit like old times on Saturday with the noise surrounding the release of the ETA prisoner Iñaki de Juana Chaos. All the usual suspects gathered in Madrid to protest at the release, and it was inevitable that the target of the protests would be the government for not having “done enough” to keep De Juana Chaos locked up. What the government should have done in the view of these people is invent a legal pretext to stop him from going free, given that he has served his sentence and is entitled to be free. The new secretary general of the Partido Popular, Maria Dolores de Cospedal, showed up at the protest too although it was a sign of how things have changed in the last few months that she was also a target of criticism and abuse from some of those gathered.

That could not be the end of the matter, and sure enough the duty judge at the Audiencia Nacional in Madrid has now decided that a letter from De Juana Chaos to his supporters is sufficient grounds to open a fresh case against him for allegedly praising terrorism. The letter does no such thing, but in this situation the political requirements far outweigh any nonsense about what the law might say. The judge could easily have devoted his time this summer to doing something to reduce the chronic judicial backlog, but the fatal attraction of the De Juana Chaos case promises far more media attention. Sending De Juana Chaos back to jail will be undoubtedly popular amongst those who believe that someone’s freedom should be decided by opinion polls, newspaper editorials and political preferences. At the same time it promises to make the law look ridiculous in its vengeful pursuit of a single ETA prisoner whose relationship with that organisation is now said to be distant.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Some Days Are Hotter Than Others

If this blog seems to have been to be a bit quiet in the last few days it's not because I've gone away. It's just that I've had a visitor here in Madrid, and we've been enjoying - if that is the right word - as hot a weekend as I can remember since I came here. It's not over yet either, another two to three days of extreme heat awaits us in the city. I've always felt that I could manage life here in summer without feeling the need to invest in air conditioning to keep cool, days can be hot but nights hardly ever seemed to be so tough as the influence of the altitude and the sierra cools the night time temperature and lets you sleep. Last night wasn't like that, tonight won't be any better, and even going close to any equipment generating heat (whether it's the laptop or the coffee maker) is no longer as easy as it was just a week ago. I think I need to go for a glass of water, maybe I can take advantage of the relative coolness tomorrow morning to write a slightly sleepy rant about terrorism and the right. As if I haven't done that before.