Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Themes That Can Change An Election....The Madrid Bombings Trial

By tomorrow lunchtime we should know the verdict in the trial of those accused of perpetrating the Madrid train bombings on March 11th 2004. We don't know what is going to happen to the 28 people still accused of participating in the bombings, but the betting is that all but one of those being held in preventative prison can expect to receive a sentence in excess of the full time they have served awaiting trial. Otherwise, the normal procedure would have been to release them. I will be examining the verdict and its consequences in much more detail in the next few days on a blog not too far away from this one. For the moment I just want to look at the potential political impact of the trial.

According to an opinion poll today in Público, one third of Partido Popular (PP) voters still believe that ETA was involved in the massacre, which given the hammering such a belief took during the trial is either a depressing homage to the power of the media to influence opinion, or perhaps an equally distressing revelation of how difficult it is to persuade some people to face reality when they don't want to. How the figure compares to those who believe Elvis is still alive has not been revealed.

The campaign run over the last few years by El Mundo and the COPE radio station, with the PP leadership playing the part of backing chorus, is something that personally I find goes well beyond what could be considered the normal "rough and tumble" of political life. Perhaps they won't receive any punishment for this cynical manipulation of such tragic events, but they certainly deserve to regardless of whether the motives behind it were personal, political or commercial. The conspiracy theorists are already preparing themselves for the possibility of an adverse result. The PP leadership has firmly denied ever having promoted conspiracy theories about the bombings. Fortunately, we have Internet archives to hand to demonstrate just how very untrue this affirmation is. El Mundo is also publishing highly selective comparisons between its coverage and that of El País. Should Jose Emilio Suarez Trashorras be convicted of having supplied the explosives used in the bombs, then it is a fairly safe bet that El Mundo will not choose to reprint their extensive interview with him in which they presented him as an innocent choirboy-like victim of a conspiracy.

Despite publicly stating that they will respect the decision of the trial, I expect El Mundo and the PP to continue their efforts to at least confuse the issue. A clear verdict of Islamist responsibility for the bombings carries a political charge. This charge has been made even greater by the mountain of lies constructed to try and cover the original attempt to manipulate the bombings by Aznar’s government. We will hear much about how their efforts have helped to clarify unknown facts about the bombings, together with denials that they ever suggested collusion between the current government and ETA. If the judgement casts even the slightest doubt about any of the key evidence in the case, then expect such doubts to be magnified to the maximum possible extent.

The date of the next election must also take into account the Madrid bombings. Until someone breaks the electoral cycle, and it doesn't look like happening this time, then general elections in Spain will continue to fall close to the anniversary of the train bombings. It will be a factor in the date to be chosen for that election; calling a poll either just before, or shortly after the anniversary will inevitably remind people of the events that took place 4 years before. Very tight security has surrounded the verdict, undoubtedly the judges on the court are as aware as anyone else of the impact of their decisions.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Who Benefits From Forgetting History?

It now looks reasonably likely that the proposed law on historic memory is going to get passed before the next election, after a very protracted negotiating process involving virtually all political parties – with one notable and unsurprising exception. Barring last minute obstacles, most likely to come from the conservative Catalan nationalists, the law should go through. The proposal is not as strong as some wanted it to be, but there have been interesting developments.

One of these is the move to oblige state or local institutions to remove symbols of Franco’s dictatorship from public buildings or spaces. It looks like Santander is finally going to lose its statue of the General. Another proposal is that organisations who receive public subsidies will also be obliged to remove such symbols. Now the most obvious institution affected by such a move is the Catholic Church, as thousands of churches around the country host commemorative plaques in honour of Franco and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the fascist Falange. Unfortunately, I doubt that the church will receive any more than moral pressure to remove these, and morality plays little part in the outcome.

Valle de los Caidos....no way to treat a mountain

That the Spanish Catholic Church will probably be the last institution in the country to accept that the regime has gone was evidenced yesterday by the lavish beatification ceremony held in Rome for 498 “martyrs” of the Civil War. Nobody should be surprised to find out that none of the 498 were amongst those killed by Franco and his forces, even though some priests (especially in the Basque Country) were amongst those executed in the destruction of the Spanish Republic. Funnily enough, these ceremonies were not even held when the General was still alive, it has only been with the return of democracy that the Church has engaged in this selective and sectarian continuation of the war by other means. The favourite argument of those who oppose any attempt to rectify the imbalance of the transition to democracy is that it reopens old wounds. None of these people were heard saying this yesterday; they were probably all in St Peter’s Square. It goes without saying that no ceremonies are being proposed for those whose bodies are still lying in unmarked graves around the country.

Meanwhile, some 160 streets in Madrid are said to still bear names imposed during the dictatorship, there are no longer any statues of Franco left but there are certainly significant monuments. The arch you see as you enter the capital via Moncloa was built as a tribute to Franco’s victory, and then of course there is El Valle de los Caidos. This act of monumental fascist/religious vandalism which defaces a whole mountainside in the Sierra de Guadarrama is also touched by the proposed law, although sadly only to the extent that it will be “depoliticised”. Hopefully this at least means that those running the place will no longer be allowed to pretend that it was constructed as a monument to peace, perhaps they will even be obliged to recognise the existence of the political prisoners who died building it. Is it any wonder that the sons and daughters of the dictatorship are so keen to maintain the amnesia of the transition, to keep playing this game which allows them to present themselves as democrats at the same time as they carefully tend and preserve the symbols of the regime. It’s time that game was ended, being honest about the past helps you to move forwards.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More Tales from The Green

Back on a sporting theme, I've seen a couple of stories in the last week which demonstrate just how vital it is for us to have more people playing golf. Over in Avila yet another area of woodland has been devastated to make way for an urbanisation of several thousand homes and its now inevitable golf courses. There is only one problem, the inhabitants of the nearest village (only 150 of them) are entirely reliant on water brought in from outside as the already severely depleted local supply is contaminated with arsenic. I'm sure a solution will be found to stop the golfers dropping dead on the first hole. No such problems at the private Real Club Puerta de Hierro in Madrid, as the city administration has generously agreed to invest 800,000 euros on setting them up with a guaranteed water supply. Anybody who thinks this is not an appropriate use of public funds can move to Avila....or anywhere else except Madrid.

The golf course is deserted....

I have a pitch for a Hollywood movie, but before I get on the plane to Los Angeles I thought I'd try it out here first. It's the year 2040. A clean, wholesome looking young professional couple dressed in matching polo shirts are discussing their plans for the evening. "What shall we do tonight darling?" says one. "It's so lovely outside, let's get the clubs out and have another round of golf". Happily they make their way down to the lush green golf course that lies just inside the heavily guarded perimeter of their urbanisation. Meanwhile, not far away in the ruins of the city formerly known as Madrid, groups of private "security" guards roam the delapidated streets. They are paid to hunt down and exterminate the few remaining people who have had problems adapting to the lifestyle made compulsory 25 years earlier by twin headed hydra and President for Life Aguirre-Gallardón. Stopping by a dusty, sunbaked concrete gully to rest for a while, one security guard says to the other "what do you think this was for?". " I'm not really sure", replies his companion, "although they say a river ran through it".

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Civic Responsibility

It's back! The Civic Rebellion, that noble movement of decent, honest, hard working, ordinary, Partido Popular voting folk whose main activity in life seems to be shouting "Zapatero dimisión" at anyone who such much as looks in their direction, returns to the streets of Madrid on November 24th. It's a good date for it, the PP's more affluent supporters will have an excuse for getting the mink out of the wardrobe as the autumn chill should be with us by then. If we are really lucky it will rain...heavily.

The callers of the latest demonstration are not, of course, the PP itself. As usual they rely on one of their satellite organisations, and the increasingly inaptly named Asociación de Victimas de Terrorismo (AVT) has undertaken the task of mobilising yet another anti government demonstration. Meanwhile the president of the AVT, Francisco José Alcaraz, finds himself with a small legal problem over some of his more extreme public outbursts. He is facing a court case accused of “injurias” against the government because of his frequent statements claiming that the Spanish government and ETA work hand in hand. Much as I detest Alcaraz and his viciously sectarian political activities, I’m not in favour of it being an offence to insult or defame any government. Indeed, were we to take action against all of those who have peddled blatant falsehoods against the government on the issue of terrorism alone we would have so many legal cases in progress that even the most right wing of judges would not have time to chase those who burn photographs of the king – and where would that leave us? Apart from that, it gives Alcaraz a thoroughly undeserved chance to play the martyr.

Of course it needs to be pointed out that sometimes you reap what you sow. The AVT has systematically attempted to use the legal system to silence critics and to take rock bands to court over their lyrics. If anyone deserves similar treatment then it is Alcaraz. I wonder how much of the money which is supposed to have been used to assist the victims of terror has actually been employed in legal intimidation of all those who Alcaraz dislikes. Add to that the undoubtedly enormous amount of money they spent in their attempts to destroy the police case against those accused of perpetrating the Madrid bombings. Did you read that last bit right? Yes you did, an association purporting to represent victims of terrorism tried harder than some defence lawyers to bring down the prosecution case in that trial. An adverse verdict, from the AVT's point of view, will be one that attributes the massacre to Islamist terrorism. All those years of selling fantasies and lies and conspiracy theories will have been wasted. If that is how next week’s verdict emerges the PP, AVT and friends will need to make even more noise on November 24th to try and drown out the impact of the case.

The AVT and their allies have taken the abuse of terror for opportunist political gain to new heights. The organisation is run by a hard right clique who exist in this ethical vacuum where anything justifies the end objective, even if they debase in the process the very cause which they were set up to promote. No greater disservice can be done to the victims of terrorism than to use them in this way. The PP could easily set up its own internal grouping of terrorist victims, but then they would have to be open in their political alignment and of course the PP would have to fund their activities from its own resources. The best thing the AVT can do, if nobody is able to reform it, would be to disband itself and let genuine organisations represent the needs of terrorist victims. None of this is likely to happen.

So this fraudulent attempt to misrepresent the voice of the victims will continue. Given that there is no current negotiation process with ETA, then one will have to be invented for the occasion. I am sure that Alcaraz is already working on the details of another sinister and clever communist-nationalist conspiracy to convert España into Exspaña. I predict this will run along the following lines, the breakdown of negotiations with ETA is just an electoral ploy by Zapatero who still has to honour the commitments he made to them as they worked out together how to commit the Madrid train bombings. Once he is back in power he will simultaneously hand over half of Northern Spain to his Basque allies whilst they all joyfully perform regional dances on tattered copies of the Spanish Constitution. That document which the Spanish right overwhelmingly rejected when it was first proposed but which they now love and revere as if it was their own dear child. Meanwhile the F2M (flags to morons) business has never been stronger. Once again I am forced to curse my lack of business acumen for letting pass another opportunity for a comfortable and early retirement.

Monday, October 22, 2007

I Don't Speak Your Language, Can You Shout A Bit Louder?

Last week saw the return of the programme on Spanish television where politicians are subjected to direct questions from selected members of the public. Previous editions had featured Prime Minister Zapatero and opposition leader Mariano Rajoy, and both appearances made the headlines. This time it has been the turn of politicians from other parties, and the headlines have all been made by Josep Lluis Carod Rovira, of the Catalan nationalist party Esquerra Republicana. Carod Rovira was confronted by questioners who clearly were not there to sing his praises and who insisted on using the Spanish translation of his name, José Luis. The response of Carod Rovira to this was to say "I'm called Josep Lluis, not José Luis, both here and in China."

The whole incident was silly, the questioners were obviously out to show their disdain for all things Catalan, and Carod Rovira replied in a way that made it clear that the only audience interesting him was to be found within the boundaries of Cataluña. A pointless confrontation between rival nationalisms, but which did at least serve to highlight another issue. One of the questioners raised a common complaint made by those who live outside of regions such as Cataluña or the Basque Country. The argument goes like this; a person from Castilla-León who wants to work in the public administration in Cataluña has to speak both Spanish and Catalan, whilst someone from Barcelona who wants to work in Valladolid is only required to speak Spanish. Discrimination, so the argument runs, and those of us who live here in the capital can expect to hear this point being made fairly frequently.

Now regular readers of this blog, assuming there are any, should be aware by now that nationalism is not really my thing. However, on the issue of public services and language I take sides. Sometime long ago in a distant nation not far from France I decided, mistakenly as it turned out, to embark on a career in local government. Now things work a bit differently on this island and moving from one local authority to another was accomplished by the relatively uncomplicated procedure of filling in application forms and attending interviews. Occasionally though, things were slightly more complicated. Some Welsh local authorities would insist on applicants for a position in their district having knowledge of the local language. This to me always seemed entirely reasonable, even though it put me theoretically at a disadvantage – theoretically because I never actually applied to work in any of these areas.

People who complain about such a situation show zero interest in the provision of services to the public and should probably not be allowed to occupy a position anywhere in the country. If you think that the administration exists with the sole objective of providing you with a secure existence for the rest of your days then it is natural to see it as wrong that you be required to actually learn anything to be able to fulfil this role. On the other hand, those who believe that the administration should be responsive to the needs of those who pay for its existence might find it comprehensible that José Luis the funcionario from Valladolid should be capable of communicating with those he is supposed to attend to in the language which they habitually use. So instead José Luis and friends remain in their comfortable offices in Valladolid or Burgos, paying no attention to the public assistance telephone which has been ringing non-stop for the last 3 years, whilst bitching constantly to their colleagues about a non existent flood of Catalans who are not taking all of their jobs. Sympathy? Not here, or in China.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Anyone Know A Good Builder?

Having posted already this week on music, cinema and football I think it’s time for a bit of politics. Strange events took place this week in Valencia and led to the resignation of the leader of the PSOE in the region, Joan Ignasi Pla. What lay behind his resignation was the revelation that he had not yet paid a substantial bill for work done on his home several months ago by a company that has significant construction interests in the region. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem such a big deal, at least if it is judged by the ethical standards governing much political activity on the shores of the Mediterranean. What makes the story truly interesting is where it came from.

Pla was not brought down by the right wing press trying to damage PSOE chances in Valencia. Instead the revelations came from the Grupo PRISA – traditionally close to the PSOE and owners of the Cadena SER radio station and the newspaper El País. In his resignation statement Pla placed the blame on the media and on members of his own party who were settling accounts – or in other words just what Pla had failed to do himself; I must remember to write down the name of his builder.

There are several angles to this story. On the one hand you have a Grupo PRISA increasingly disenchanted with the PSOE and a government that now has other media friends. At the same time the national leadership is said to want the vice president of the government, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, to lead the party list in Valencia for next year’s general election. She constantly emerges in opinion polls as the most popular member of the government, and the PSOE had a disastrous result in the May local elections in Valencia. Pla was not seen as helpful to the cause, and he is no longer in the way.

Next week I intend to get back to some genuine political ranting, I feel I haven’t done enough recently. To get fired up for this I am going to spend the weekend in the city that used to be known as “Red” Bologna.

Spanish Football For Beginners....The Home Strip

All football teams have, as I’m sure you know, a home strip and an away strip. Some teams have more than this and Atlético Madrid is a case in point; for they also have an asset strip. Last time I wrote about their use of the pelotazo I expressed some doubts about the benefits of this operation for the football club itself. They had jumped onto the supposedly highly lucrative train that takes them to a shiny new stadium whilst the old site gets redeveloped with thousands of new flats and big profits. However, having read the latest on what is being planned it seems fair to say that Atleti could be about to enter the record books as the only football club to engage in this kind of operation and not actually make any money out of it at all. They could even lose money. Now it's almost customary when I write about the club for me to describe their supporters as being "long suffering" or something similar. However, given what seems to be happening I have to wonder whether it's just plain masochism that makes someone follow the team.

So what’s wrong with the Atleti pelotazo? In the end it’s quite a simple case of mathematics, unless I have seriously misinterpreted what I read in the press. So let’s take a look at the balance sheet:

The club is expected to net €250 million from the redevelopment of the Vicente Calderón stadium - sounds pretty impressive but we haven't got to the other side of the sheet yet

  • €160 million (paid in advance) to redevelop the existing stadium - La Peineta - that will be their new home. Seems quite a lot to convert a stadium, you could probably build a new one for that money.
  • €80 million as the contribution to burying the stretch of the M30 ring road that currently passes the Vicente Calderón
  • €20 million on the athletics track at the new stadium if Madrid is awarded the 2016 Olympics. That has to be a really good running track for that price! I bet they use top quality gravel.

So now let’s work out the profi.....oh dear, either my maths are wrong or it is not looking good for Atleti. It also appears that the agreement on the redevelopment includes a clause that adjusts all of these costs for inflation, with - you've got it - Atleti paying the extra whack if the paperwork takes a long time to go through. An additional "detail" is that they will not even be the owners of the land on which the redeveloped stadium sits. So they could end up paying almost 200 million euros for redeveloping an existing stadium that will not even belong to the club after work has finished. Now I can offer an explanation for why those who run the club might want to pursue an operation that could leave it losing money. It seems that about 3 years ago two property companies and the Caja Madrid bank bought into the ownership of the club, which was already in the name of yet another property company. What I cannot explain is why the fans of the club seem willing to put up with what looks like being a huge scam carried out at their expense. It’s a funny old game, football.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


After my recent lament about the lack of good Spanish cinema this year, we are now seeing the releases that have the potential to change the situation. Last week I saw the latest film from Iciar Bollain, Mataharis, and I’m happy to say that the verdict is positive.

The film focuses on the lives of 3 women who work in a private detectives agency recognisably located in Madrid's Gran Via. We have one older woman (played by Nuria González) whose life outside of work has clearly reached a dead end with a husband with whom she hardly communicates. Of the other 2, the busy Eva (Najwa Nimri in the best performance I have seen her give) tries to cope with the demands of her work and bringing up 2 young children; on top of this she then discovers a secret about her husband (it's not for nothing that she works where she does!) that makes her reconsider her relationship with him. The third main character is Inés (María Vázquez) who finds that her passion for her job is challenged when she is asked to take on a case that is by no means what she expected it to be. Via the different stories of these 3 women, we get a portrait of the struggle to reconcile domestic life with the demands of work, as well as being reminded that the typical work of a private detective isn’t exactly Raymond Chandler.

The film lacks the power, as well as the almost unbearable constant tension, of Te Doy Mis Ojos, the last film from Bollain. However, after such an accomplished work, Bollain has no need to demonstrate with every film that she can get to grips with the “big” issues. Things are looking up for Spanish films, and with the release of El Orfanato and the upcoming Las 13 Rosas the autumn looks promising.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Yo No Crucé La Frontera, La Frontera Me Cruzó

The Mexican presence in Madrid is not very noticeable, particularly when compared to that of countries like Ecuador, Peru or Colombia. However, go to a concert by Los Tigres del Norte, as I did last night, and you no longer feel that you are in Madrid. Almost 3 hours of music from one of the country’s veteran groups, I felt at times like I was almost the only one who didn’t know all the words to their tales of emigration and drug cartels. Most striking was their relationship with their audience, those who didn’t get a handshake were probably up on stage having their photo taken with one of the band’s members. Or they had their dedication read to everyone as note after note was passed up to the front. The bouncers next to the stage got nervous at this mixing of audience and group, but everything happened with such a good spirit that even they started to relax a bit after a while.

Let me just say in passing that Mexico is one of my favourite countries in the world, I have both travelled and worked there. I like the people, the food, the music, the geography and the cities. It’s just a pity it’s so far away. Like some other countries it has a reputation that doesn’t correspond to the reality of the place. So for Mexico and those who didn’t go to the concert, I leave the last word with Los Tigres.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

For King And Country

Well, another Fiesta Nacional has passed so now that the helicopters have stopped flying overhead it’s time to take stock. “King” Mariano Rajoy, known until his video appearance last week as the interim leader of the Partido Popular (PP), should be satisfied that his party achieved their objectives for the day. Hundreds of PP supporters demonstrated their love of the nation by disrupting the homage to Spanish troops killed in overseas missions with their anti-Zapatero chanting. In addition we got a glorious display of Spanish flags, including many that belong, ahem, to another era.

Meanwhile in Valencia, hundreds of demonstrators gathered to burn photographs of prominent personalities. What’s this? Photograph burning? Where are the judges, the police sent out to hunt down the perpetrators, the indignant headlines in El Mundo? You see this was different, it was a fascist group burning photographs of nationalist politicians from the Basque Country and Cataluña. So that’s alright then.

As the prices of basic foodstuffs rise sharply this autumn we can at least have the consolation that not everything is more expensive. Patriotism, for example, has never been cheaper.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Espe's Pearls

I tried to resist, really I did, but another post on Esperanza Aguirre has just pushed its way to the front of the queue. In true Aguirre style it didn't even think of apologising. Our pauper president has treated Madrid residents to more examples of her wisdom in the last few days, as well as giving us a keen insight into what she thinks politics is all about.

First we got a sound piece of advice for her rival to be the next leader of the Partido Popular, Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón. I still can't combine the words "PP", "leader" and "Aguirre"in the same sentence without shaking my head in amazement, but anyway let's continue. Espe informed Alberto that he is more handsome when he is "calladito", that is when he keeps his mouth shut. Now coming from certain Sicilians, for example, this would be enough to make most people get plastic surgery and change their country of residence. Coming from Esperanza it's not that much less frightening, it's more or less Aguirre-speak for "we know where you live Gallardón, so watch out!".

You can't see exactly where the knife enters in this picture

Putting to one side the internecine squabbling for position in the PP, Espe also had a suggestion for Prime Minister Zapatero. Continuing with her recent theme of Madrid being starved of investment (there's plenty more motorways that we could bury), she suggested to Jose Luis that if he gave her more money to waste she would be prepared to join him in some photo opportunities, presumably bogus inauguration ceremonies. The offer has had the predictable effect of ensuring that Madrid will be offered no extra money at all. It also raised, at least to my mind, the question of whether acceptance of the offer would make any difference at all to Espe's daily routine. When was the last time she didn't spend her day passing from one photo opportunity to another?

Then there's the dos de mayo story; no, that one can wait.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Themes That Can Change An Election....The Constitutional Court

It seems hard to imagine what the Constitutional Court could possibly have to do with the result of the next general election. After all, this is supposed to be one of these institutions that is above the day to day political fray, and whose members are chosen from the lists of the great and good to take on the onerous task of looking after the constitution. That's the theory, but now let's deal with the reality; this tribunal is currently the scene of one of the most bitterly fought political battles of the last few years in Spain.

This battle has been underway for several months, although you could be forgiven for not noticing. The opposition Partido Popular (PP) has filed challenges on constitutional grounds against almost every major piece of legislation in this parliament. However, the most important challenge they have made has been to the reform of the Catalan autonomy statute, the Estatut. They have even challenged as unconstitutional clauses which they have supported in similar statutes in other regions. It is this issue which has provoked the battle inside the highest court. The court has not yet even begun their formal deliberations on the issue, all of the fighting is taking place over which of the members will be allowed to participate in the hearings. The reason for this infighting is the equally divided political balance of the court between right wing members... and the rest. Note that I didn’t say “left wing” because frankly I doubt that any of the members of the court are really more than moderately left of centre. The right wing faction is nevertheless truly right wing, and it is acting as a cohesive political bloc with the intention being to deliver a verdict on the Estatut before the general election.

Now if you intend to carry out hearings on an issue in an impartial manner with the “best interests” of the nation in mind what you don’t usually do is set out in a very determined way to remove all of those members of the tribunal who might opt for one particular side of the debate. That is what the right wing faction on the Constitutional Court are trying to do, they have already succeeding in excluding from the debate one member who had done nothing more than prepare a report for a previous Catalan administration to the one which promoted the Estatut. With one down they have now turned their fire on the president of the tribunal in an attempt to replace her with someone more sympathetic to the cause. All of this in an attempt to create an artificial right wing majority which can bring down one of the most important measures introduced by the current government. That is why this battle is important, if the Estatut is declared unconstitutional the result will be political turmoil and those behind the move know it.

The outcome is still unclear, but at least it removes any idealistic notions about the non-political nature of these institutions. The first test for membership of the Constitutional Court is not your experience or your knowledge of that document; instead it is your political loyalty to those who propose you. It seems to matter little to these political appointees whether they destroy the credibility of the court in the process of getting what they want. The Estatut was approved by the Spanish parliament, and subsequently in a referendum, despite that it can still be destroyed by 5 determined political appointees who feel constitutionally obliged to impose their opinions on the rest of the country. It’s called democracy.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Veiled Criticism

The case of an 8 year old Muslim girl who was refused admission to her school in Girona for wearing a hijab has provoked plenty of debate in the last week. A lot of comparisons are made with the situation in France which famously passed a law on the issue. In the end the Catalan regional government has ordered the school to readmit the girl, affirming that the right to education overrides their internal regulations.

Cases like this tend to make for very strange bedfellows as sections of the non-religious left line up with right wing bigots who are more than happy to see religious symbols banned as long as it is not their religion. I think the decision that the right for this girl to continue receiving schooling takes priority over the issue of how she dresses is undoubtedly a correct one, whatever the good intentions are that lie behind the regulation in this case. The education system should help to give pupils the ability to make their own decisions about things which affect their lives, but it’s not there to be used as a means of imposing a solution. I say this as someone who believes very strongly in keeping religion out of the education system.

I don’t think anyone seriously believes that the moves in countries such as France would ever have happened in the case of Christian or Jewish kids alone; the law was introduced because of Muslim girls wearing the veil or the hijab. It’s mistaken to think that you can lift oppression by edict in this way, families can also be oppressive for all sorts of other reasons that have nothing to do with religion and we can’t reasonably expect the educational system to offer the solution for all these different problems. It’s particularly ironic to see such debate about the issue here when the Catholic Church is still receiving enormous subsidies from the State to run schools. If we want to take religion out of education then maybe that is where we need to start?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Flag Day

The newspaper El Mundo, a journal which ancient legends tell us once merited some respect, has been busy for weeks combing villages in Cataluña and the Basque Country looking for town halls where the Spanish flag is not being flown. Not surprisingly, they have found some, and have received the energetic support of the Partido Popular (PP) in their campaign to force these renegades into line. Not content with this, the PP leadership has now launched yet another campaign to try and wrap themselves in the national flag – an operation which hopefully includes at least some risk of suffocation.

October 12th is a national holiday in Spain, and indeed in several South American countries. It gets called different things in different countries, although “Your country now belongs to us” Day appears to have fallen out of fashion as time passes since the end of the empire. Anyway, I digress; the PP wants people out on the streets on October 12th when those of us unfortunate enough to live close to the centre of the capital will be repeatedly subjected to low flying military aircraft. Some sections of the PP probably regard this event as a dry run for getting Zapatero out of office should the more conventional route of winning the elections not produce the desired result. Given the tendency of many of these people to take any opportunity to hiss and boo at the hated Zapatero, the PP clearly hopes they can turn the military parade into an anti-government demonstration with lots of elderly irate rightists waving enormous flags as they shout abuse. What should I do, go there with my camera, or get of town? Tough decisions.

Occasionally in my idle moments, of which I don't have enough these days, I try to think of something useful to do with a flag. Use it for cleaning the windows is one option, but newspaper works so much better (El Mundo is not completely useless). It might work as a doormat for muddy feet with all the rain falling in Madrid this week, but then it crumples too easily and I have a good doormat anyway. Something will occur to me.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Themes That Can Change An Election....The National Question

A bit later than I intended, and with a topic that I didn’t expect to emerge so soon, it’s time to kick off my mini-series on issues that might affect the result in Spain’s forthcoming general election. The proposal by the president of the Basque regional government, Juan José Ibarretxe, to set a process in course that might lead to a referendum allowing the Basques to “decide their own future” has predictably turned political attention away from the all too brief flirtation we have seen recently with economics and social issues. In reality it is just a rehashed version of an earlier project that Ibarretxe proposed when Aznar was still in power. Nevertheless, the reaction has been predictably strong and much of the criticism focuses on the fact that regional governments in Spain have no power to convoke binding referendums, and the legal position on any other kind of consultation is far from clear. Ibarretxe’s proposal goes straight to the heart of this, with the statement that he will put his plan to a vote if he doesn’t get what he wants in negotiations with the national government.

Other factors aside, the proposal by Ibarretxe and its timing is also a reflection of internal battles within his own party, the PNV. Ibarretxe is not the leader of the PNV, he is the regional president; known as the Lehendakari. As a result of recent infighting between the faction who want to present a more openly nationalist face, and those who favoured a more gradualist approach, PNV president Josu Jon Imaz has been forced to stand down. This decision was presented at the time as being more or less a draw between the competing factions, the main rival to Imaz was also forced to declare that he would not stand for the presidency. However, it looks as if Ibarretxe also got the go ahead for his plan as part of the deal to solve the internal crisis, I put his wing of the party ahead on points.

Ibarretxe....Earth to Enterprise, one of your extras is missing

Meanwhile, a lot of the noise coming from government supporters points to how the PP will seek to make electoral advantage of the move by Ibarretxe. There is no doubt they will try to do this, although I find it hard to see how they can keep the issue alive for 6 months, especially with the government openly opposing the plan. How much more can they do on the “España se rompe” theme that they haven’t already done? Perhaps we will see the return of the civic rebellion; we haven’t had an angry right wing demonstration in Madrid for months! At one point you couldn’t cross from one side of the city to the other without encountering masses of people who made the sign of the cross if you so much as unfolded a copy of El País. Some people seem to think that the PNV is acting against its interests by doing something that might favour the PP, but the fact is that the PNV does better electorally when there is confrontation with Madrid than when there is not. Their best election results have come when the PSOE and PP attempted to unite against them. Nationalism cannot flourish where there is no “other” to line up against, the more peaceful the political scene the less likely they are to mobilise the nationalist vote.

Prime Minister Zapatero has already scheduled a meeting with Ibarretxe to discuss the issue; it’s hard to see anything coming out of it as both men will be playing with an eye to their audience. It may do more to worsen relationships between the government and the PNV as the spin doctors go to work on the outcome. It’s ironic that those who make the most noise about the plan include so many of those who shouted about Navarra’s “right” to decide its own future as a counterpoint to the entirely imaginary plot by the government to hand the region over to the Basque Country. Me, I’m all in favour of the Basques having the right to self-determination, not because I think they should exercise that right; just because I don’t believe you can hold countries together by laws or force alone. The probability of the Basques voting for independence is not very high, at least not without serious fixing of those entitled to vote. Prohibiting them from doing so probably has the effect of increasing support for the idea as well as providing a spurious justification for continuing terrorist activity.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

King Defends King Shock

A stunned nation is still reeling from the news revealed yesterday that King Juan Carlos of Spain thinks that having a monarchy is a good idea! I had no idea at all he felt so strongly on the issue. I'm sure that he has soberly considered all of the alternatives, weighed up the arguments for all points of view, and reached a conclusion based on the need to support an ever larger family and sheer force of income...sorry, I think I meant to write "logic".

Meanwhile, the spiralling and senseless judicial farce provoked by the unnecessary decision to prosecute people for burning photographs of the monarch continues. Today it has been announced that prosecutors are now seeking prison sentences of up to 18 months for those accused of this heinous crime. Now whether people think it is a good idea for people to burn photographs of the monarch is virtually irrelevant - to me the issue is whether we should pay salaries to judges who waste their time trying to punish those who do so. We need to hear a bit less about "the law is the law and must be applied". This is a common bit of nonsense, which if it were to be taken truly seriously would mean that virtually all police time would be entirely occupied on traffic offences, tax evasion and litter duty. The reality is that many crimes are not pursued at all, some are given higher priority than others, and that the discretion that exists to do this also allows a right wing judge (and most judges seem to be right wing) to pursue his private political prejudices against those whose views he dislikes. This was the point I made the other day in a different way, when I remarked on the impunity that allows people to build thousands of apartments that are entirely illegal, and then to calmly sip mojitos by the Mediterranean whilst the legal system chases photograph burners. You can call it what you want, but it ain't the rule of law.

So there we have it, the King is the symbol of stability and democracy and therefore we must fill the prisons with all of those who disagree. This is not just about nationalists protesting against the Spanish state, we now have a case in Madrid where prosecutors are also seeking a year’s imprisonment for someone who attempted to replace a flag on an official building with the emblem of the Second Republic. Nothing else, just that. I'm thinking of moving before the pogrom of republicans gets into full swing, and fortunately I think I've found the perfect place. In the village of Humilladero in Malaga the local council has pronounced itself in favour of a constitutional process leading to the Third Republic. It's symptomatic of the fear that reigns in the PSOE these days that their councillors in the village have been threatened with disciplinary action for supporting the move. Anyway, I provide the map just so that those of us who are not impressed by the arguments of Juan Carlos know that we have a refuge when we need it. The way things are going that might not be too long. Looking at the map it evidently has a lake nearby, the sea is not far away either and close inspection of the satellite image reveals lots of olive trees – I think I might be able to put up with exile in the Democratic Republic of Humilladero!

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