Thursday, May 21, 2009

No Winners, Just A Few Survivors

The Spanish government has emerged from last week's "state of the nation debate" with a certain amount of satisfaction. Depending on which opinion poll you choose to believe, the outcome was either a clear victory for Zapatero or a draw. The only ones that have given Mariano Rajoy as the winner are the dodgy "vote early, vote often" internet polls and one (sharp lensed?) photographer even captured a Partido Popular member of the Congreso voting in one of these during the debate. Don't worry, we think he voted for Rajoy! Zapatero was not obliged to hold this debate when he did, in fact he is not obliged to hold it at all. That he chose to do so just at the beginning of the campaign for the European elections suggests that he was confident that he would get the better of Rajoy. Based on past experience he has good grounds for such a belief, Rajoy has never been seen as the winner in any of the debates between the two men. This, however, was the first such confrontation to be held with the crisis biting hard.

The expectation was created, perhaps deliberately, that Zapatero was going to steer a course to the left in his speech. In the end he did the opposite, with a set of measures designed to eat into the territory which the PP had tried to occupy. There were (limited) tax cuts, assistance for the motor industry, and a reduction in public sector recruitment amongst the measures announced. Many in the PP find it hard to conceal their disappointment and frustration over the failure of their leader to land a knockout blow even when circumstances could hardly be more favourable for the main opposition party. Rajoy doesn't seem to be good at on the spot improvising, so when Zapatero chose an unexpected approach in the debate Mariano just acted as if nothing had changed and carried on with his pre-prepared interventions. The unwillingness of the PP (or inability?) to spell out any of their own proposals in detail didn't do much to help the response

In the end, the lack of any stable agreement between the minority government and other parties has meant that most of the proposals announced by Zapatero have ended up as much vaguer declarations so that the parliament would not vote them down. The most interesting proposal was that which would put an end to tax relief for mortgages from 2011 for those above a certain income. It's a measure which has been on the cards for quite a long time, but no government has yet been willing to implement it. It's seen as an unnecessary handout, often going to people with no financial problems, and which only helped to encourage the property bubble. The aim of phasing it out in this way is an attempt to stimulate the housing market enough in the next couple of years to try and clear up some of the massive mountain of unsold properties. Buy now and you can get tax relief, leave it for later and you won't. However, the negotiations over the maximum income limit for obtaining relief have not yet reached the stage where we can know what is being proposed.

A proposal to assist purchase of a new car has run into problems already because it requires the participation of the autonomous comunidades and many of these have already developed their own schemes. Madrid of course insists on continuing with its own plan to reward the purchase of the least energy efficient vehicles. Personally I'm more interested in incentives to buy a good ham than I am in handouts for a new car, but I do understand that an impressively large number of jobs still depend on the motor industry in Spain. It probably doesn't matter that much whether most of these proposals survive or not. The intention behind the whole exercise has been a variety of relaunch for the government following the unenthusiastic reaction for Zapatero's reshuffle a few weeks ago. Both major parties are now working flat out for the European elections, what in other circumstances would be seen as an almost irrelevant exercise has acquired political significance unlikely to be grasped by the majority of voters who are expected to find other things to do with their time come voting day.

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