Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Seven Things That Really Annoyed Me About The Catalan Elections

It's been a while since I've had anything in this blog that I would consider to be a rant. I suppose some may not share that opinion. As a final post for the moment on the Catalan elections I thought I'd share a list of some of the things I found most irritating during the campaign. Plenty of material there, but this time I've decided to leave all the ridiculous stuff from right wing sources in Madrid to one side. I've dedicated plenty of space to them before on this blog and I hope to continue doing so, it forms an important part of what I see as my public service remit. 

Instead this time I'm focusing on things from the pro-sovereignty side. Feel free to put the other side or conflicting opinions in the comments, for a day or two we can still pretend we live in a free society. The disclaimer first, I think I've already pointed out on previous occasions that I support the right to decide for Cataluña and other places too. I am not now nor have I ever been a prisoner of the opinions of the lunatic right in Madrid. I don't share the argument for Catalan independence, although I understand and respect the case for it when it is reasonably argued. However, that is not the case with the shit I'm going to describe now. Here we go:

The "nobody loves us" argument. You see it in comments like "we have to separate because we see the Spanish have no love for us". Oh please, grow up! Be like Millwall fans for God's sake. No one loves us, we don't care. Well, maybe you don't need to go that far, although at any given time half of them are probably slumped in a bar somewhere just off the Ramblas anyway. But a bit of mental toughness. Not everybody has to like everybody else to be able to share the same territory. Perhaps also consider the possibility that describing the rest of the country as fascists (see below) or lazy scroungers living off your hard earned money doesn't really help when it comes to creating a harmonious and mutually respectful atmosphere? Just a suggestion, take it away and think about it. But do stop bleating.

It's the history stupid! I don't have a disdain for history, on the contrary I think it's very important that we study and above all learn lessons from the past. But that's not the same as living in it. Trying to use past glories as a basis for the future is precisely that. Only the good bits of history, of course, not the bits where most people are just peasants standing around in their own shit and keeling over with the plague. Let's just pretend we're all in the Catalan nobility and we're riding off to conquer another chunk of Italy or an island somewhere. I don't generally accept Balkan/Catalan comparisons, but I can't stomach that kind of Serbian "we fought a battle in this muddy field 1000 years ago so therefore its ours" mentality. It's over, and it's a far better contribution to join in constructing a different future than to try and return to an often imagined past. If, after having considered the issue you decide that what you like is dressing up in stupidly heavy armour and slaughtering peasants than you are probably standing in the right muddy field. Just try not to bother anybody.

The fake solidarity argument. Of course I have nothing at all against redistribution between wealthier and poorer regions but first we have to have all of our money. ALL OF IT! I guess it helps that I can write this from a region that also contributes to the redistribution of wealth in Spain, and I can declare that I'm in favour of that policy. There should be more transparency over funding and where all the money goes. Those who want independence or the full monty in terms of fiscal receipts are clearly not in favour of redistribution, at least not outside of Catalan borders. So why pretend otherwise if you are demanding something that makes it impossible? Will it be 10 pujols a week into the collection plate at church for solidarity after independence? 

There's no investment. You know those Spanish 'pijo' cretins who like to comment in foreign media like the FT or The Economist trying to take advantage of what they assume is complete overseas ignorance about Spanish affairs? You know who I mean, they would write things like "Perhaps you are not aware of this, but Zapatero is really an ETA terrorist and second cousin of Saddam Hussein who eats the babies of decent Spanish families for a hobby". Well there's a Catalan equivalent. They write things like "Spain spends millions on high speed trains in other regions, yet we have no transport link to France". You lying little fuck is my usual measured reaction to this kind of comment. It's being built and its about to fucking open, and its not like at the moment you have to change in Barcelona into a donkey cart to get to the French border. When I come to power anybody who tries to get away with this will be taken outside and given a severe talking to by someone dressed as a traditional British bobby. Maybe a slap too, but in a non gratuitous way, obviously. Then they'll have to write a letter of apology to the media organisation concerned saying how sorry they are for being a lying little fuck. I mean, if you have to tell porkies like that to bolster your case? About 6 months after the high speed link to the border opens there'll be someone writing in the comments page of The Guardian saying "Oh it's so unfair that it takes us Catalans 27 seconds to get to Paris in our train that only goes at 3000 km a minute when in Madrid they have one that gets there in 26 seconds and lands on fucking Mars on the way".  Jeez it's annoying.

Franco. It's the opposite of the history thing combined with a touch of the pijo cretin. This notion that Cataluña is some sort of 21st century liberal Scandinavian paradise trapped in the evil grasp of a medieval theocratic Spanish beast. Or a Francoist beast, take your choice. I mean it's not like CiU are the fucking People's Democratic Front For The Liberation Of Catalunya is it? Whilst we're on the subject, and despite the attempts to talk them up, it's not like Esquerra Republicana are either. Take Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida for example. This politician, leader of the CiU group in the Spanish parliament, is bizarrely popular with all sorts of Spaniards. This is because, on issues that don't affect Cataluña, he exemplifies this sort of "Why don't you all stop bickering and sort yourselves out?" common sense approach. He also lives a very fine life in the Palace Hotel in Madrid. He is also a catholic reactionary with opinions so extreme on issues such as homosexuality that you can almost imagine people at a Hazteoir meeting nudging each other and whispering "He's a bit over the top isn't he?" Then there's Franco and this idea that Spain has not changed even a little bit since 1975. Madrid, according to the absurd caricature, is supposed to be some sort of drab city straight out of a 1940's black and white movie where blue shirted Falangists keep the cowed inhabitants of the city in check. Now even if you line up the entire readership of La Gaceta in the same place, all you end up with is something that looks a bit like a large group of smokers outside an office building. Except that by the time you've finished half of them have died of old age anyway. This Franco memorial meeting next weekend, commenters were saying, is proof of how little Spain has changed. But journalists will outnumber other attendees 4 to 1 at least. Anyway, the Falangists have been replaced by the riot cops these days, so who says we've got nothing in common with Barcelona? Of course there are all sorts of things that could and should be modernised to make a better society, and the remaining leftovers of Francoism should be dealt with. Says a person who comes from a country where the opening of parliament is like a Monty Python parody with people wearing multi-coloured smocks and waving staffs and pikes.

All these lists for everything. You know what I mean, all those space fillers in what used to be called the quality press like "57 things you didn't know about some alleged celebrity who you've never fucking heard of anyway" I don't even make lists for going shopping. Life isn't some sort of giant Powerpoint slide for Christ's sake. Down with lists!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Catalan Elections....The Loser Is The Winner

It didn't work. That's the simple and clear verdict of yesterday's elections for Artur Mas and Convergència i Unió (CiU). The gamble that they could capture absolute power in the Catalan parliament has backfired in a spectacular way that few expected. Whilst the last opinion polls suggested Mas might not reach the objective of an overall majority, I don't think any polls predicted that CiU would lose ground in the way that they have. It seems evident that there has been a significant shift of votes from CiU to Esquerra Republican (ERC). So one of the main consequences of this gamble by Mas has been to restore the fortunes of his main rival for the nationalist vote. That should have a few people inside his own party sharpening their knives. 

Despite the setback, CiU are still very much the dominant force in Catalan politics. If anyone believes that the shift in support from CiU to Esquerra represents some sort of major turning point in nationalist voting patterns then I suggest they click on the results for 2006 in the results widget in my previous post. Esquerra have been here before, they've even done better than this before. The general assumption this morning seems to be that CiU and ERC will unite in a grand coalition, as between them they command a majority in parliament. This is not, it needs to be pointed out, the same as a majority of the votes cast. Between them the two parties can claim just over 44% support. Ironically, the alliance last time around between CiU and their good friends from the Partido Popular could claim greater electoral legitimacy, at least they made it to 50%. 

The solution of a nationalist coalition might appear to be obvious but it's not so simple. Esquerra have never wanted to be a junior coalition partner to CiU, and that option is full of danger for them. There is, of course, the compensation that they get back their offices and official cars and all the trappings of power which they showed such a liking for with the 'tripartit' government a few years back. Unfortunately for them it didn't go down so well with their voters. Also, an agreement with Mas means they have to publicly line up behind setting the Mossos d'Esquadra and their rubber bullets onto anyone who doesn't like their health service being dismantled. There isn't that much remaining of the 'Esquerra' part in ERC but they also have to keep an eye out for emerging rivals, look at the rise of the CUP in yesterday's election.

In return for keeping Mas in power, ERC will need something to show for it and the obvious trophy is paving the way for an independence vote. The problem is, following yesterday's results, that the popular enthusiasm for such a move seems to have been wildly exaggerated. Nor is it really valid to spin the result by confusing an apparently pro-referendum majority with a pro-independence one. Despite what some appear to think, being in favour of the 'right to decide' yet against independence is both a coherent and an impeccably democratic viewpoint. It's the position I hold, for example, concerning Scottish independence. Even though I'm entitled to the passport if Salmond gets his way. 

It's also important to remember, when considering the balance of forces,  that regional elections tend to overstate the nationalist vote in Cataluña, with a reverse effect being seen in national Spanish elections. Nationalists are more motivated by the issues of Catalan government than Spanish. That seems to have changed a bit this time, there has been a greater mobilisation of anti-independence voters. The unionist party Ciutadans have been regarded as something of a joke, but they have tripled their representation in the new parliament. The PP also did well, by their own standards, although they are still a minor party in Catalan politics. After a build up that had almost everyone expecting a major shift towards pro-independence sentiment, a closer examination of the results reveals a small reverse in nationalist support. 

The Catalan socialists of the PSC must be relieved, not because they did well but because it could have been worse and because of all the attention focused on Mas. The PSC should be the big hitter of the national Spanish parties in Catalan elections, and in the end they've finished in third place just ahead of the PP. That's an awful result, but I still believe it has as much to do with national issues as with local ones. It fits the pattern of dismal results in other regions for the PSOE. It's hard to say whether they have lost votes to Ciutadans and the harder line anti-separatist positions. Iniciativa per Catalunya, which would expect to pick up votes on the left from disillusionment with the PSC, have gained three seats which isn't bad but it doesn't suggest great things to come either.

There are all sorts of lessons to be drawn from these elections, but perhaps its the Catalan left that really needs to be thinking hard about where it is going. Seeing every issue through the prism of the national question isn't offering any solutions to those who need them as the crisis continues to bite hard. The idea that the unemployed of Badalona have more in common with Artur Mas and company than they do with the unemployed of Alcobendas looks patently absurd. As does pretending that the rest of Spain lives a leisurely life of ease and comfort at Catalan expense. Hard times are still ahead, and holding hands with Artur won't do anything to help those who are bearing the brunt of the crisis.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Catalan Regional Election Results 2012

So is this it, crunch day for Cataluña as it decides its future relationship with Spain? Well no, not really. We are treated to yet another early election called, as in the recent case of Galicia, for opportunistic reasons. Which is not to say that today's elections won't be something of a turning point, it's just that it would not be fair to judge the results purely as a verdict on the future status of Cataluña. But such is the game being played by regional president Artur Mas that nobody can be sure that anything will happen in terms of a future sovereignty vote, even if he gets his desired overall majority. That majority is what this election is really about, Mas decided to try and ride the wave of nationalist sentiment surrounding the huge march in Barcelona on September 11th to try and get the majority government that he couldn't get last time around in 2010. 

Mas and his party, Convergència i Unió (CiU), have never been in favour of Catalan independence, and the language he has used in the campaign to refer to the national question has been deliberately ambiguous. It's not hard to foresee that he could disappoint an awful lot of people if he gets his desired result. Not the for the first time, and it's not that easy to feel much sympathy for those who allow a bit of demagogic, flag waving, populist tub thumping rhetoric to triumph over the reality of their own experience.  Mas runs a right wing government that cuts welfare services at the same time as reducing taxes for the better off. To then plead that there is no money to pay for essential services because of Spain seems blatantly ridiculous but you can hardly blame him for doing so given that it seems to work?  

The campaign against the austerity measures so enthusiastically embraced by Mas and company has been effectively destroyed by his suceess in turning it into an issue of Cataluña versus Spain. Some polls have shown Mas getting the majority he wants and others have shown him falling short, there is no consistent picture. What does seem evident is that there will be a significant collapse in support for the PSC, Catalan wing of the PSOE. Although this will also undoubtedly be attributed to nationalist issues as well it really forms part of a broader national pattern. This is all terribly flattering to the governing Partido Popular, some polls have even suggested the extraordinary outcome of the PP becoming the second biggest party in a region where its supporters have occasionally been able to fit in the largest model in the SEAT range. 

As in Galicia, where the PP lost a significant number of votes but won a larger majority on a smaller share, the collapse in the socialist vote makes the PP look stronger because of their ability to mobilise more of their core vote. For the other parties it looks like there will be some revival for Esquerra Republicana (ERC), who have resolved their attempts to combine left wing and nationalist politics in a faintly ridiculous way; they now consider themselves to be left wing in the national parliament and nationalist when playing at home. Another beneficiary of disenchanted left wing votes could be Iniciativa per Catalunya, although much of the traditional socialist vote looks destined for abstention The results, as usual, will not be known before 20:00 Madrid time. The results widget, courtesy of El País.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Despite All The Noise They're Closer Than You Think

The latter stages of the campaign for tomorrow's Catalan regional elections haven't just been about the cynical attempts by Artur Mas to convert nationalist sentiment into an overall majority for his party, Convergència i Unió (CiU). Corruption has become one of the main issues following a report by El Mundo claiming that senior figures in CiU have millions of euros carefully stashed away in Swiss bank accounts. Mas and CiU have continued to play the nationalist card by claiming that any such reports are just the evil work of Madrid based Spanish centralists. 

Now my views on El Mundo's journalistic standards have, I think, been fairly clearly expressed in my blogging over the last few years. The paper has a long history of manipulating information and sources, so it should always be a standard procedure to try and get hold of the original documentation. Yesterday, in the case of the corruption allegations we got that opportunity as a police union released the document which El Mundo used for its story. In reality, the issue of the Swiss accounts is not the core of the document, which is more about the scandal surrounding Barcelona's Palau de la Música Catalana. 

Lovely building the Palau, I went to a concert there a few months ago. Not so lovely is the the way in which the rehabilitation of the historic building was used as the cover for a massive corruption scandal which goes to the heart of the Catalan political establishment. The case concerns the paying of huge commissions by major companies in return for public contracts, with the governing bodies of the Palau being used to distribute the proceeds between individuals and organisations closely linked to CiU. El Mundo's document casts little new light on the case, but as a description of the scale of the corruption involved it's really quite useful. 

Interestingly, it turns out that it's not just CiU that is affected by the scandal. The document mentions an allegation that El Mundo, unsurprisingly given its political orientation, didn't seem to find very interesting. The claim cited by the document is that José Maria Aznar's political foundation, the FAES, also received a handsome commission via those accused of ripping off the huge sums of money involved. Surely there would be no collusion between the dominant party of Catalan nationalism and Madrid's right wingers, supposedly so bitterly opposed to each other? Well it seems that one of those accused in the Palau case, Felix Millet, was also a prominent member of the Catalan branch of the FAES. By one of those uncanny coincidences that life throws up, Aznar's administration made a generous contribution to the (by now) incredibly expensive job of restoring the Palau. 

The Palau case is not unique by any means, it's remarkably close to that pattern of corruption that is still emerging in Partido Popular ruled areas like the Balearics, Valencia and Madrid. Public money is ransacked via commissions and phony billing with part of the money being diverted to the illegal financing of political parties. The only 'fiscal deficit' we're talking about here is the millions these people have managed to extract from public funds. Nevertheless, it's clear that Cataluña is more than capable of supporting its own local kleptocracy without any help from the rest of Spain. It's going to take an awful lot of flag waving to get rid of the stench.

With all the noise of the election campaign, it's easy to forget that CiU and the PP have had a pact for the last year, with the Catalan nationalists showing enthusiasm for some of Rajoy's failed economic recipes in return for the PP propping up the minority administration run by Mas. The collaboration isn't finished either. Yesterday the Spanish governnment pardoned, for the second time, members of the Mossos d'Esquadra who had been convicted of torture. Yes. Torture. This pardon, along with that of a corrupt CiU politician a few months ago, is part of the pact between the two parties. Now the same officers will be free to torture other citizens. I would nominate them for the job of waving the Catalan flag from the police helicopter on the next Diada march in September 2013. I'm reliably informed such gestures go down very well. That is, if they're not too busy dealing with the pesky opposition

I was reading last week an extract from Aznar's forthcoming memoirs. It's a tedious and difficult task, but somebody has to do it - I mean, you're not going to buy this stuff? In the midst of all the vainglorious grandstanding about how Aznar made Spain the greatest nation the world has ever seen, there was some interesting detail about how he worked hard to get CiU to join his government, even when the PP had an overall majority. You see, they had quite a lot in common. They still do, it's a shame that so many will need to have Catalan independence before being prepared to deal with that.