Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Abuse Of Terror Pays Low Dividends

The attempts by the Partido Popular (PP) to capitalise politically on the collapse of the Basque peace process following the bomb attack at Madrid airport do not appear to have brought them much success. The latest opinion poll published at the end of last week, and which was based on polling data taken shortly after the ETA bombing, showed them closing the gap on the governing PSOE by just 0.2% since the previous poll by the same organisation in October. This is a change which has no real statistical significance, and results from a lower figure for the PSOE rather than any increase in support for the PP. Meanwhile, on the ratings given to individual politicians, the PP leader Mariano Rajoy emerges from the poll with a very low personal rating, a consistent feature of many opinion polls.

Rajoy, not such a popular man

The apparent stalemate in the opinion polls, and the inability of the PP to get ahead against a minority government three years into its term of office, is causing a certain amount of frustration in some right wing circles. The conservative newspaper ABC has begun to voice this frustration by calling for renovation in the party leadership, a message almost certainly aimed at the discredited (for his role in handling the Madrid train bombings) Angel Acebes, and Eduardo Zaplana; who achieves the rare and difficult feat of making Richard Nixon seem like a straightforward and honest man by comparison. The problem is that these are José Maria Aznar’s men, and moving them out is difficult while the party more or less holds its own. Because the PP has no real internal democracy only clear signs that they are going to head to another electoral defeat might force the party heavyweights to move against Rajoy. In the meantime they continue to try and use the imaginary surrender of Zapatero’s government to ETA as their main opposition platform, coupled of course with the ever present attempts to spread the conspiracy theories about the Madrid bombings. The encouraging sign of the latest poll is that this strategy does not appear to be working for them; the signs are that the electorate does not blame the government for ETA’s return to violence.

Meanwhile, last Saturday's anti-government demonstration called by the terrorist victims association (AVT) showed that the great "civic rebellion" they like to boast about simply isn't happening. Even the regional government of Madrid, controlled by the PP, put the attendance at just over 100,000 when normally their figures for protests against the government are never below one million.

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Homage To Catal..onions

Taking advantage of the high speed train line that will (eventually) link Madrid and Barcelona, I spent an excellent weekend near to the coastal city of Tarragona. On Saturday we did some fine walking in the hills of Montsant near to the village of Ulldemolins. From the top of Pico Pins Carrasers there are some spectacular, and vertigo inducing, views of the surrounding countryside. In addition we had time yesterday to visit the walled village of Montblanc and see something of the city of Tarragona itself.

However, all this walking and sightseeing was just a facade. The real objective of the visit was to try another seasonal gastronomic experience, the calçotada. The centre of this tradition is the area around Valls, not far from Tarragona. The calçots (shallots) are barbecued, with the outer shell becoming almost completely black, although the inside remains soft and edible. The normal way to eat them is with your hands, removing the completely burnt outer layer, and dipping the rest in a special sauce based on almonds and tomatoes called salvitxada. This can be a bit of a messy process, and we were all issued with paper bibs in the restaurant where we ate, although I thought the provision of disposable plastic gloves was a step too far. Having disposed of dozens of calçots the next course was a platter of buitifarra, chorizo and lamb, when you go for a calçotada it’s best to go hungry. All accompanied by cava and local wine; the surrounding areas produce some of the best wines of Cataluña. As with the cider houses of the Basque Country, now is the season, go after March and it’s all over until the following year. I think I’ll find time to do it again next year.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Afghanistan Gets Hotter

I wrote recently about the increasingly dangerous situation in Afghanistan, where Spain has a contingent of severañ hundred soldiers. This danger was confirmed yesterday with the death of a female soldier, Idoia Rodríguez. She was killed by a mine that exploded underneath the armoured ambulance which she was driving, about 40 kilometres away from the Spanish base in Herat. Two other Spanish soldiers were wounded in the attack.

The vehicle was part of a convoy, but was apparently the only one not equipped with a frequency inhibitor to prevent remote controlled detonation of explosives. That said, it is still not clear whether that was the method used for activating the mine in this case. It follows an incident at the beginning of the month when a helicopter was fired on; maybe not enough yet to suggest that the situation is definitely deteriorating but the early signs are not good.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Andalucia....Autonomy Doesn't Excite

In another referendum yesterday to approve a reformed autonomy statute, Andalucia voted overwhelmingly in favour, almost 90% of those who voted were in favour. The downside is that the real winners of the popular vote were those who abstained, with participation in the vote reaching only 36.28%.

The outcome of the vote was hardly in doubt, which did little to lift the turnout; all of the major political parties supported the reform with the exception of the regionalist Partido Andalucista. Supporters of the reform even included the Partido Popular (PP), who have been so vocal in their opposition to the reform in Cataluña. The Andalucian PP, perhaps conditioned by years of electoral defeats in the region, decided to support a reformed statute that contains clauses which the national leadership have challenged as unconstitutional in the case of Cataluña.

With such a low turnout there are inevitable voices talking about the need to engage the electorate more in the political process. The lack of real enthusiasm is hardly surprising; the devolution of power to the regions normally causes much more excitement in the political class than it does in the population as a whole; who find little change in their lives as a result. A similar thing happens with elections to the European Parliament, whose activities seem so remote from the concerns of most people. After each successive election, there is a week in which the politicians talk about the need to involve people more in the European project; then everything returns to normal again.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Municipal Elections 2007….I Declare This Inauguration Season Officially Open

Elections can creep up on you a bit like the changes that occur between seasons; the first buds of spring, that slow rise in the temperatures. We are still more than three months away from the municipal elections that will take place near the end of May, but already there are clear signs that something is happening. One of the signals that we are already unofficially in campaign is the disappearance of many of the fences and trenches that have now become as much a part of the Madrid landscape as the Puerta del Sol. This then allows Madrid’s mayor, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, to preside over an inauguration ceremony to show how his huge program of construction projects has transformed the city, and how grateful we should all be to live in such beautiful surroundings and have some of the newest traffic tunnels in the world.

Let's hope they didn't forget the roof supports....

The characteristic feature of this hectic round of inaugurations is that most of the projects being inaugurated are not actually in a fit state to be used in any way. We were given a classic example of this last week with the opening of one of the new tunnels in the massive project to bury part of the M-30 ring road in Madrid. There was only one small problem; the tunnel in question was not actually ready to be used, there were some small details still to be resolved such as emergency exits etc. A representative of the mayor assured the press that this was not really the opening ceremony; they were just “putting the tunnel into operation”. Later, there would be another inauguration ceremony. These were not very well chosen words, because not long after the rain falling in Madrid that day put the tunnel definitively out of operation; it seems that drainage was one of those small details that still had not been attended to.

The pioneer of this custom of inaugurating unfinished infrastructure projects was José Maria Aznar. Prior to the elections in 2004, there was a constant stream of images of Aznar inaugurating one project after another. Some of these projects, notably the new terminal building at Madrid airport, were probably much nearer the beginning than the end of construction; for a while it seemed that all you needed was someone to be digging a hole in a field for yet another photo opportunity to be arranged. We have many more to come in Madrid in the next 3 months.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

March 11th....My Other Blog Shouldn’t Need To Exist

Today the trial of those accused of perpetrating the Madrid train bombings in 2004 has begun, almost three years after the events that are to be examined. It is going to be a long trial, expected to last several months. Already the conspiracy theorists grouped around El Mundo and the Partido Popular are intensifying their efforts to cast doubt on the judicial investigation; with their determination to try and suggest that a different, unidentified, explosive was used in the train bombs.

I want to write extensively on the trial, I believe it is an important event both because of the gravity of what happened on March 11th 2004, but also because of the ongoing political consequences. However, I do not want to turn this blog into a chronicle of that trial, nor do I want to write exclusively about this issue. So I have decided that from now on everything I write about the Madrid bombings will be posted on a separate blog, where my aim will be to cover the significant issues raised by the trial, and to provide a brief record in English of its progress. So, as they say in all the best cookery programmes, here is one that I prepared earlier: Playing Chess With The Dead.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Road To Guantánamo Passed Through Spain

I have written previously about the ongoing investigation into the CIA use of Spanish airports for clandestine transportation of prisoners. Last week the Spanish government agreed to release intelligence reports to the judge concerning these flights, although there is little sign that very much intelligence effort had gone into investigating what has been going on. The government here has not demonstrated much interest in the affair, and clearly wishes the issue would just disappear.

The press revealed a few days ago that there were other airports used for flights to Guantánamo by US planes, including some from bases that are subject to joint use between the two countries, and supposedly covered by an agreement that forbids the US for using them for any purpose that the Spanish government might object to. Further revelations followed, it seems that when José Maria Aznar was still prime minister (before 2004), a team of Spanish police officers were sent to the prison camp to interrogate prisoners. These were not Spanish prisoners, and the team were not sent at the request of any judge investigating offences committed in Spain.

When questioned about this visit, all of the current leadership of the Partido Popular (PP) seem to have suffered a collective attack of amnesia. None of them can remember anything about the issue, including those who had responsibility for the police at the time. PP (deputy) leader Mariano Rajoy, vice president of the government at the time, has claimed that it is all such a long time ago that it cannot possibly be of interest to anyone - he is obviously too busy with other things to notice the continuing war in Iraq.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Supreme Court Passes The Buck

The Supreme Court yesterday heard the appeal of the ETA prisoner and hunger striker Iñaki de Juana Chaos against his sentence for making terrorist threats, and the result has been a substantial reduction in the sentence. The original sentence of over twelve years imprisonment was tremendously harsh compared with those handed down in other cases for the same offence, and where the nature of the offence was much clearer. The Supreme Court not only reduced the sentence to three years, but they decided that the offence committed was of a lesser kind.

The decision by the Supreme Court is a clever one, and in many ways no less political than the original decision. By all accounts it was a difficult session with some judges demanding that the sentence be revoked, and others pushing for an even longer jail term. In the end they have created a situation where the prisoner can theoretically be released from jail, but have left the decision on whether to release him in the hands of the administration. De Juana Chaos has already served two years of the sentence and what could happen for a prisoner in these circumstances is that they get conditional release. Whether that happens in this case still depends more on politics than anything else, as any decision to release De Juana Chaos will still provoke a storm of protest. This is something the judges have avoided, although at the same time they make it possible. The earliest reports suggest that De Juana Chaos intends to continue his hunger strike until he is released, a high risk strategy for someone who could soon be walking completely free by accepting the sentence.

The Supreme Court here seems to be resisting the temptation to mix itself too much with political issues, despite having a conservative majority (incidentally, are there any judicial institutions anywhere in the world that don’t have a built-in conservative majority?). Yesterday’s ruling comes not long after a decision they made that ruled out judicial interference on the question of meetings between ETA’s political wing, Batasuna, and representatives of the Spanish Socialist party (PSOE) in the Basque country. This sets the court aside from the more politically partisan attitude being adopted by right wing judges on other tribunals or institutions.

Everything has to have its downside of course, and in this case it will be that Madrid that suffers the consequences. Yet another demonstration against the government is being organised by the Association for Victims of Terrorism on February 24th, with the De Juana Chaos case as the pretext. The good news is that I will be away that weekend so they won’t be able to include me in the headcount for those now inevitable claims that millions of people have responded to the “civic rebellion”.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Cider In San Sebastián

If you mention the word cider to most people in Spain it's likely that the conversation will soon turn to Asturias, the region of the country that seems to be most associated with this drink. However, this weekend I have been enjoying the cider season in a different area, the Basque Country. It was a few years ago that I first became aware of the existence of cider houses in this region. The majority are only open for a short season that tends to run between January and April, for consumption of cider and, usually, a fixed menu consisting of cod tortilla, followed by cod fillets prepared in different styles, chuleton (t-bone steak), cheese and walnuts. The centre of this tradition is the province of Guipuzcoa, and specifically the area around Astigarraga, not too far inland from San Sebastián.

The first time I went it was to a cider house in the countryside that was the nearest thing I have seen in Spain to a German beerhall; long trestle tables where everyone sat to eat their menu, while the cider was poured straight from the barrel. The atmosphere was great, when people were not eating they were congregating around the cider barrels. This time around the place was nearer to San Sebastián and possibly because of this it was a bit more sophisticated but lacking a bit the atmosphere of the first time. The compensation is that San Sebastián is a great city to spend time in.

Outside of the city in the villages are some of the best casas rurales you can find, run by very hospitable owners; and much more reasonably priced than the expensive hotels of San Sebastián. Forget the negative image of the region that you can get from reading about politics and terrorism, the people are welcoming, the countryside is beautiful, the cider is really good, the weather can be a bit English and the Basques know how to do a good chuleton better than anyone else in the country! Find out more here.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Quiet Please, We're In Spain!

When you live in the heart of a city as noisy as Madrid can be, it doesn’t seem possible to associate living in Spain with silence. That could be changing though, a court in Tenerife yesterday ordered the suspension of any street festivities after 10:00 at night that exceed 55 decibels until the judge delivers a definitive verdict on Monday. Even that might not seem too exceptional were it not for the fact that the festivities in question are those associated with Carnival, and Tenerife has one of the biggest Carnival celebrations in Spain. There are some events that take place during the day, but the real action probably isn’t even getting started by 10:00 at night. It seems hard to imagine that the case, presented by some local residents who will now probably have to into hiding, has any chance of succeeding but we live in strange times. Even in Germany you’re allowed, or expected, to make noise at Carnival time. You can tell other people about this story, but please try to do it quietly.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

No Safe Haven

A fishing boat packed with up to 400 immigrants, believed to be mostly from Pakistan, has spent 4 days offshore of Mauritania while the Spanish government attempts to persuade the Mauritanian government to accept the boat. It sounds bizarre, but the situation is a product of attempts by the Spanish government to return prospective immigrants trying to reach the Canary Islands from West Africa.

In this particular case the boat got into trouble on the high seas and the Spanish maritime rescue service towed it to it's current position. Mauritania was not the country of departure, which was believed to be Guinea, and it is not at all clear what will happen to these people if they get landed there. Presumably, they set about trying to find another way to get to Spain. The Spanish government is busily opening new embassies in West Africa and is putting intense pressure on countries in the region to agree to accept returned immigrants and to try and stop boats from leaving for the Canaries. The main effect of this policy has been to push the point of departure further south, making the journey longer and more dangerous.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Atrapat En El Temps

Here we go again. Just when it seemed that the long debate over the reform of Cataluña’s autonomy statute had finally been resolved, after what seemed to be an interminable process, it has suddenly bounced back into the limelight. The reform was approved by the Spanish parliament despite fierce opposition from the Partido Popular (PP), and was also approved in a referendum in Cataluña back in June last year. That would have been the end of the matter, if the PP had not presented many of their objections to the Constitutional Tribunal alleging that parts of the reform are unconstitutional.

Even if the political manoeuvring had ended with the presentation of this case, then the verdict of the tribunal would probably have been to accept the reform with perhaps some minor modifications; politically the tribunal is fairly evenly balanced. But the PP took their challenge a step further and challenged the eligibility for the hearing of one of the judges, clearly this was not going to be one of the judges likely to support their case. The judge in question, Pablo Pérez Tremps, was challenged on the grounds that he had done work for the Generalitat (the Catalan regional government) that was related to the statute reform. In reality, the work that Tremps did was contracted by the previous administration in Cataluña, although his contract continued after the elections that brought in the new three party government that subsequently promoted the statute reform. An earlier attempt to challenge him failed, but it now seems that the conservative members of the tribunal have decided to act as a bloc.

If they continue to act in this way then they can now impose objections to the statute on the rest of the tribunal, something they could not have done with the presence of Tremps. One option to prevent this that has being floated is for Tremps to resign his place on the tribunal, this would then allow the government to appoint someone else in his place. Obviously this has the side-effect of Tremps losing his prestigious position, and there is no guarantee that this will happen. If they declare parts of the Estatut to be unconstitutional then things get genuinely difficult. Changing the constitution in Spain is by no means a trivial process, apart from anything else it involves calling elections. So the government would have to choose between losing parts of a flagship reform, or risking their popularity in a popular vote around something that doesn't get people very excited in Albacete or Sevilla.

It’s ironic that it should be the politically most conservative sections of the political spectrum that are doing most to discredit the judicial institutions in Spain, with their attempts to try and achieve via these institutions what they have not been able to achieve via the popular vote, their determined attacks on the 11th March investigation are further evidence of this. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of this issue, sometimes you just feel like punishing people for bringing it back to life. We endured a long, and frankly very tedious, process of getting the reform approved. Groundhog Day was supposed to be last week, as far as the Estatut is concerned it seems that every day can be Groundhog Day.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I'm Behind The Times

An article yesterday in the Times about the ETA prisoner Iñaki de Juana Chaos and his hunger strike has attracted massive publicity in Spain. The paper published a photograph of the prisoner taken in the hospital where he is currently being held, and published his written answers to a set of interview questions. The publication of the photo is one cause of the controversy provoked by the article, and an investigation has been opened into how the image was obtained.

The Times Online site was relaunched yesterday and seems to have experienced some teething problems as a result. This situation was probably not helped by the appearance of hordes of angry Spaniards seeking to tell the English speaking world how bad De Juana Chaos is, and protesting above all because the article describes ETA as a “Basque separatist group”, instead of describing them as terrorists. This is an issue that has surfaced quite frequently on web pages I have seen in the last few weeks, and I think the position someone takes on it depends on the concept they have of what constitutes good journalism.

I think there are very good, legitimate reasons for using the terminology of the Times article. When I first arrived in Spain I was a bit shocked by the way in which journalists in the press or television routinely referred to ETA as the “banda terrorista”. It surprised me, not because I believe that ETA isn’t a terrorist organisation, but just because I was not used to journalists describing them in this way. I don’t remember the television or press back in the UK always describing the IRA in this way as a terrorist group, and it’s not necessarily something I want my sources of information about the world to be doing. I tend to take the position that I am capable of reaching my own conclusions on the issue.

It is of course quite possible for a group like ETA to be separatist and terrorist at the same time, the two things are not incompatible. The former is descriptive of the objectives of the group, and the latter of the methods they use to try and achieve those objectives. Like it or not, “terrorist” is a subjective, judgemental term. It is a cliché to say that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, but the cliché is to some extent a reflection of reality. The issue is always better illustrated by taking examples from far away, two that spring to mind easily are the FARC in Colombia, and Hamas in Palestine. For some people both of these are terrorist organisations, while others think neither of them are. The question is whether it helps our understanding of the issues for journalists to use it as a description.

The reason why ETA gets referred to as a separatist organisation by foreign journalists is not because those journalists are sympathetic to the organisation; it is simply an attempt to find a more neutral non-judgemental way of describing them. When you are writing about events for the benefit of people who may not be very knowledgeable on the topic, you have to devote more effort to descriptive explanation. This is something that distinguishes a lot of journalism about international affairs from that concerning domestic affairs where readers are more familiar with the subject matter. To me, the job of the journalist is not to impose an acceptable vocabulary or judgemental vision except in cases where it is clear that is a comment piece.

Now I may think that the Partido Popular is a cynical, hypocritical bunch of political bandits – readers of this blog should be aware by now that this is in fact my view. That does not mean that I want the newspaper I buy every morning to tell me that they are cynical, hypocritical bandits. It’s the same with ETA and terrorism. Without exaggerating things too much, there is a bit of a cultural difference here between Spain and the UK. In Spain there occasionally seems to be a stronger belief that reality can be reshaped simply by imposing a different vocabulary to describe it. Couple this with a shorter tradition of independent journalism, almost non-existent in television, and you easily reach a situation where journalism becomes more about reinforcing prejudices or points of view than about an attempt to describe events and inform.

The Times has never been my favourite British newspaper, and I've liked it even less since it became part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. But Thomas Catan's article was good journalism, he has done what journalists are supposed to do; bringing a story to their readers and doing so in a non-judgemental way. People who like their newspaper to be a fact free opinion sheet can buy La Razon, or those with a taste for more inventive journalism can buy El Mundo. It’s ironic that at a time when bloggers are so frequently slated by professional journalists because of a supposed lack of standards, that so many of these professionals fail to defend basic principles of their trade. I don’t know whether another Murdoch employee, José Maria Aznar, has complained about the publication of the article; if he has I can only express the hope that his influence does not yet stretch very far in the company.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Count Me Out

Saturday’s anti-government demonstration in Madrid more or less guarantees that the Partido Popular (PP) and their associated front organisations will continue their all out assault on the government’s policy regarding ETA. The reason why they will not change course is simple; they succeeded in their objective of mobilising their supporters in sufficient numbers to allow them to present the demonstration as a success. It seems, at least externally, to matter little to them that they are clearly not mobilising any sectors of Spanish society outside of the hardcore right wing opposition to the government. The PP put enormous effort into getting their supporters from all around the country to come to Madrid, with the aim of getting a higher number of demonstrators than the anti-ETA march of January 13th, which the PP and their supporters boycotted.

There has been a predictable war of numbers following the demonstration. The Comunidad de Madrid, the regional government controlled by the PP, has claimed that 1.5 million people attended. The Delegación del Gobierno (which answers to the central government) has provided an estimate of 181000 attending. In El Manifestómetro there is a detailed report and they estimate the attendance at an even lower figure then the Delegación. The enormous difference between these estimates is not actually very difficult to explain, the Comunidad always refuses to disclose its methods for counting participants, but invariably applies a multiplier of 9-10 to all demonstrations sympathetic to the PP’s positions. There is another, perhaps slightly less significant, factor for the inaccuracy of the PP’s estimate; they have almost certainly counted me several times as I made my way around different sections of the demonstration.

Now it is a popular sport in parts of Cataluña to form human towers, the people who do it are known as castellers. Don’t ask me why it happens, it’s just something they like to do. However, even they would probably have difficulty in achieving the density of almost 40 persons per square metre which would have been needed for the Comunidad’s attendance estimate to hold up. Additionally, and I’m putting this as delicately as possible, many of the PP supporters come from the more affluent strata of Spanish society, and do not possess physiques which make the scaling of human towers a realistic possibility. So something has to give here, and I’m afraid it has to be the Comunidad’s estimate; most realistic estimates do not count more than 3-4 people per square metre.

Because of important personal commitments (oh alright, I was listening to Chelsea-Charlton on the Internet!), I didn’t make it for the beginning of the demonstration. The advantage of this (completely unavoidable) delay was that I was able at the same time to enjoy almost 1 hour of some of the most politically manipulative TV coverage I have seen in my life. Telemadrid is the regional channel and is controlled by the same people who see millions of demonstrators where others see only houses, tarmac and trees – yes, it’s controlled by the Comunidad and for that reason is now commonly referred to as Telemaguirre in honour of the beloved Esperanza. Forced by my other commitments to keep the television volume down, I was still unable to avoid all of the commentary as those invited to comment on the demonstration freely laid into the government. Telemadrid has a concept of political balance that seems to require the presence of anyone politically from the right having to be balanced with the presence of someone else from the extreme right!

Despite the outrageous bias of the TV coverage, it was unintentionally quite revealing about what was really happening on the ground. What quickly became very evident was the extent to which this demonstration was being controlled in order to maximise its impact. The route chosen is one that I would be able to walk in about 15 minutes without breaking into a sweat, summer months apart. Due to what I suspect was a desire for the Telemadrid helicopter not to accidentally film any empty spaces, the progress of the demonstration down the Paseo de Recoletos was agonisingly slow; the front section of the march was constantly halted as hundreds of stewards received fresh instructions over their walkie talkies. Many of the banners were of a kind that would only be visible from the air, and it seemed very evident that their message was intended for the viewers at home. The political content of most of the placards was also more controlled than the demonstration called by the AVT a few weeks ago, where the placards attempting to link ETA and Zapatero to the Madrid train bombings were much more in evidence.

Later I was able to see what was going on for myself, and despite the efforts to control the political content of the placards there was much less control of what people were shouting – needless to say the references to the government were far more common than those to ETA. I’m starting to enjoy these Saturday afternoons out in a perverse sort of way; it gives me a chance to mix with people who I don’t normally have much contact with. Not that I would like it to happen too often. The most sublime moment was the sight of fur coat clad señoras applauding the group from Unificación Comunista de España, whose reasons for joining this march I will not even attempt to explain. It was made even more sublime by them being followed immediately by the Falange Autentica, one of the several groups that claim to be the true inheritors of the Francoist tradition. There are some moments you just can't capture properly on television.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Half Time In La Liga

Well the Spanish league is actually slightly over the half-way mark for this season, but it seems like a good moment to review the assessment I made back in August. Barcelona are out in front as predicted, but in no sense are they running away withthe league; with 20 games played they have an advantage of just 1 point over second placed Sevilla. They have not been playing very well recently, and part of this can be attributed to injuries to key players, notably Eto'o and Messi. However, that's not a good enough excuse for a club with the size of squad and resources that Barça have. Maybe we need to add the Ronaldinho happiness factor, the always smiling Brazilian looked distinctly unhappy the last time I saw him interviewed on television. Perhaps there is nothing to worry about, it has been a feature of the last couple of seasons that Barça have periods when they seem to lose their fluency; yet in the end they open up a significant advantage over their rivals. Both Messi and Eto'o are close to match fitness, so maybe that will put the smile back onto Ronaldinho's face.

In second place, Sevilla have been the team that has put the most pressure on Barcelona, and despite my prediction that they don't have the depth to maintain the challenge they seem to be holding up well. However, when they have had the chance to take the initiative and open up a lead at the top they have never capitalised on it. Vertigo has prevented them from setting the pace when their rivals have been dropping points quite freely.

Which brings us to Real Madrid, and I could probably dedicate a significant post solely on what has been happening at this club recently. With Real Madrid things are never boring, as one "crisis" closes then you can almost be certain that the next one is just a few days away. Now of course you need to take into account that the definition they use for a crisis is not one that supporters of most clubs would apply. Losing two games in succession is usually enough to provoke one, although it has to be said that the club is currently undergoing a significant transition both on and off the pitch.

The era of the "Galacticos" has been effectively buried as Fabio Capello clears out the players he doesn't rely on, although ironically there are now rumours that he might have to recall Beckham despite having categorically stated that he would never play for Madrid again. Ronaldo has finally gone back to Italy, and if Cassano hasn't followed him it is because nobody is prepared to pay good money for a player who just doesn't deliver. For the moment Capello is getting his way, and the result so far is a defensively solid and thoroughly boring team; Madrid have scored just 4 goals in their last 8 games. Only Van Nistelrooy has provided any goals for them this season, as Raúl continues to disappoint; despite the occasional sign that he has regained some interest in his game. They are third in the league and still very much in the race, but that has much more to do with the failings of their rivals than the strength of their own performances. Off the pitch, the legal battle over the club presidency continues, although Ramón Calderón was confirmed last week as club president after a Madrid court rejected counting the postal votes that might have changed the result of last year's election.

In fourth place come Valencia, who I fancied to do better, although they are are currently only 6 points off the top spot. The reason why they are not doing better is principally due to a disastrous run in the autumn, when they suffered a genuinely serious injury crisis. In the last few weeks they have been the most consistent performers in the league, but so far that has just been enough to get them back into the race. There are also frequent rumours of problems between coach Quique Flores and some of the players, but the team functions well when they have their key players available.

Behind Valencia come Atlético Madrid, who seem to have acquired something of the Real Madrid habit of picking up points even when they are not playing very well. That has been enough to keep them as contenders, although they need to improve significantly if they are going to maintain a serious challenge to the clubs above them. The nearest team to Atlético, and probably the only other team that can think about a top four finish is Zaragoza, who seem to be getting better as the season progresses, and have a reasonable chance of eliminating Barcelona from the Spanish Cup having won the first leg. I don't want to downplay the possibilities of Getafe, who have the same points total as Zaragoza, but at some point the depth of your squad has to affect the possibilities of the team. Getafe have become the team that many Real Madrid supporters temporarily claim to follow whenever their true team becomes submerged in the latest "crisis".

Down at the bottom there is not much hope for Real Sociedad or Gimnastic, who are already 8 and 9 points respectively from a safe position. With the newly promoted Gimnastic there is no great surprise, Real Sociedad have had much finer moments and their current situation is the sad culmination of a dramatic decline in recent seasons.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Threatening Behaviour

Tomorrow we have a demonstration in Madrid...again. The angry right are taking to the streets once more on the pretext of demonstrating against terrorism, but with the principal objective of protesting against their main enemy, the government. If it doesn't seem like a long time since they last did this, that is because it was only a few weeks ago. Since that last demonstration we have of course had the ETA bombing at Madrid airport that killed two Ecuadorian immigrants. Tomorrow's march is a response by the Partido Popular (PP) and their satellite organisations to the broad based demonstration held last month which the PP and their allies boycotted in a disgraceful, but hardly surprising, display of political sectarianism.

Not only did tomorrow's protestors not turn up for the January demonstration, they actively attempted to sabotage it. One prominent example of this came from the demagogic Taliban of the hard right in Spain, Federico Jiménez Losantos. Federico, who presents a radio show on the COPE station (owned by the Catholic Church), was naturally in favour of boycotting the demonstration. However, he took things a bit further in his attempts to destroy any possible show of unity in response to ETA’s attack. Given that the promotors of the march included associations representing Ecuadorian immigrants in Spain, he issued a clear warning to those immigrants who decided to turn out and show their solidarity with the victims. He reminded them that the majority of Ecuadorians in Spain live in regions controlled by the PP (such as Madrid, Valencia, or Murcia), and that they should bear this in mind before becoming involved in actions not approved of by that party. He didn't actually say

“That’s a nice work permit you’ve got there, it would be a shame to see anything happen to it; we certainly wouldn’t like to see it CUT INTO A THOUSAND PIECES would we?”

but nor was he very far away from saying it.

Now that we are set to get the counter-demonstration, Federico has returned to the attack. Today he set upon one of the main associations representing Ecuadorian immigrants, because they have rejected participation in tomorrow's event (due to its open pro-PP bias). Here the PP and their friends have a problem, they are using the tragic death of the two immigrants as a backdrop for their anti-government protest, but they are not getting the support of an immigrant community who did turn out in significant numbers on the previous demonstration. To try and get round this problem an organisation has surfaced calling itself the Federación de Ecuatorianos en Madrid, which is one of the sponsors of tomorrow's event. This association had never been heard of before last month, and it's president (who has links to the PP) turns out to be no more Ecuadorian than I am.

Another point of interest for tomorrow will be whether the PP mayor of Madrid, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón decides to turn up; he was much criticised for not going to the January protest and his attempts to distance himself from the hard right of his party have suffered as a result. If he goes tomorrow then he leaves even less doubt about his own position, perhaps he will catch a politically convenient virus. South of Watford has not yet decided whether its own crack team of battle hardened investigative reporters will be there to give their impressions, but I can take advantage of this opportunity to introduce the hard working team of El Manifestómetro, who almost certainly will report from the front line.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

No More Troops For Afghanistan

The Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has rejected calls by NATO for Spain to send more troops to Afghanistan, where the worsening security situation means that the US needs more help there while it gets on with the job of flattening more Iraqi cities. The Spanish currently have 690 troops in Afghanistan, sent as a gesture to appease US anger for the hugely popular withdrawal of the Spanish contingent from Iraq in 2004. The area where the Spanish are based has generally seen little conflict, but the situation does seem to be getting steadily more dangerous; there was a suicide bombing very close to the Spanish base this week, and a Spanish soldier was killed a few months ago in another attack. With a further Taliban offensive expected for the spring, if not earlier, there is a significant risk of fighting spreading to new areas of the country, most NATO countries are understandably not too keen on trying to clean up the messy aftermath of the US loss of interest since the invasion of Iraq began.

It's My Government And I'll Meet Who I Want To

Juan José Ibarretxe, the “lehendekari” (president) of the Basque regional government had to go to court yesterday to justify his decision to have meetings with Batasuna, the political wing of ETA. It is yet another example of the courts mixing politics and justice, Batasuna is an illegal organisation and there are judges who interpret this as meaning that it is for them to decide whether it is possible for anyone to talk to their leaders. All of this is a bit strange given the decision not so long ago by a higher tribunal that a meeting between Batasuna and the Basque section of the Spanish Socialist party (PSOE) was perfectly legal , and that it was not the role of the courts to decide such things.

Anyway, Ibarretxe made it clear to the court that he considered it to be his prerogative to decide on these matters, and that he would continue to organise such meetings if he thought it was useful to do so. His party, the conservative nationalists of the PNV, brought thousands of their supporters onto the streets on Monday to protest about the court’s decision to summon their leader. This is in turn provoked a predictably strong response from the Partido Popular, who accused the marchers of putting pressure on the courts. This is a bit rich coming from a party that has shown no reticence when it comes to criticising judges who don’t do what they want them to do.