Thursday, February 28, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....Missing In Action

Have you seen these men? The ones in the bottom half of the image above, currently being used by the PSOE to remind their voters of why they came out to vote in 2004. I'm not referring to the one on the right, we know here he is. It's the other two I am asking about; Angel Acebes and Eduardo Zaplana sitting alongside Partido Popular (PP) candidate Mariano Rajoy. Acebes was of course the public face of the PP as they tried to manipulate their way through the aftermath of the Madrid train bombings in 2004. He is still an important figure, general secretary of the party no less. Meanwhile, Zaplana was another loyal party servant, and since the PP lost power has been one of the main movers inside the party to promote the conspiracy theories about the train bombings. He is also still an important figure, and occupies the fourth place on the PP electoral list for Madrid.

The problem is they have gone missing, wherever Mariano Rajoy goes on the election trail Acebes and Zaplana are not to be seen. As the PP has tried to promote a softer, more centrist image, so those in the party leadership most identified with the hardline opposition of the last four years have been carefully kept out of sight. Which is not to exaggerate the shift in the PP's position. This weekend sees the emergence into the campaign of the real leader, José Maria Aznar, and it seems safe to assume that his loyal lieutenants will be allowed out for the big day. This is how El País cartoonist Forges sees the issue:

Aragonés Sues For Peace

Talking of people who have what we might call “issues” with people from other countries or with a different skin colour, it’s been a while since Luis Aragonés has featured in this blog. Aragonés is almost always having a problem with somebody, but recently he made a very public peace with Real Madrid striker Raúl. Now Raúl used to be an untouchable as far as selection for the national squad was concerned, and the decision by Aragonés to drop him has been controversial. “How many European Championships has Raúl won?” was how he reacted when some fans criticised him for leaving the Madrid player out. It didn’t seem to occur to him at the time that he doesn’t have a particularly splendid record in that competition himself.

His decision to drop Raúl was actually one of the few reasonable things “el abuelo” has done, the player had not been performing well for either club or country. However, Aragonés never stops digging when he is in a hole, so reversing any of his decisions becomes virtually impossible; and Raúl has again been looking more like the player of old. Recently Luis has felt increasingly threatened as open speculation began about who would be his successor after the European Championship this summer. Rumours that the name of this successor would be announced before the championship started then provoked him into making a stand. Feeling under attack from all sides, he obviously decided it was time to remove some of the ammunition that his critics have; hence the public peace making with Raúl. Apart from anything else, if Raúl returns to the team and Spain get knocked out in the early rounds at least no one will be able to say it happened because the player wasn’t selected.

Carnival Time For Mariano

You remember a few weeks ago when a group of morons dressed up as the “Hamilton Familly” (sic) whilst others hurled racist abuse at Lewis Hamilton? We were assured that it was all a big joke because the morons in question were just dressed up for Carnival and therefore couldn’t possibly be racists.

Well the man playing the solo in the photograph above has obviously learnt something from this incident, and nobody should assume he meant any harm when he said on Wednesday that “the rights of immigrants mustn’t prejudice the rights of the Spanish”. I mean, come on, he was just having a joke, a bit of a laugh with his costumed friends. If you don’t get it then you obviously have no sense of humour.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....Is Any Vote A Wasted Vote?

So much attention on the electoral debates tends to hide the fact that there are other parties involved in the Spanish elections. With both major parties separated by a narrow margin in the opinion polls the question of strategic voting, or what is called in Spain the “voto útil”, comes into play. For the most part the potential for vote switching affects those who do not want to see the Partido Popular (PP) return to power. After all, those who do not want the governing PSOE to win tend to be either committed already to the PP, or are voters of one of the regional nationalist parties and are unlikely to consider changing their vote to the PP.

The party whose vote is most under pressure from this phenomenon is Izquierda Unida (IU), the coalition to the left of the PSOE. Voters for the second force on the left are faced with the option of voting with their hearts for a party that will struggle to get above 5-6% of their vote, or to go with the PSOE to try and prevent a PP victory. Already, there are signs that IU’s support in the polls has declined slightly as the PP narrowed the gap with the PSOE.

The electoral system in Spain hits IU or any other minority national party with a double whammy, which brutally reduces their parliamentary representation compared to their proportion of the vote. First of all, in the smaller provinces it is possible to take a significant share of the vote and yet not get any parliamentary members elected. Then, in the main urban centres like Madrid or Barcelona, the number of votes needed to elect a single member of parliament can be three or four times that required to get the same result in a province such as Soria. It is principally the first factor that is used as an argument in favour of the voto útil.

The non-proportional nature of the electoral system means that IU’s few elected members come from the larger areas. In these elections they are already in danger of losing their representative from Valencia because of internal disputes in the selection of candidates. The danger they face is that a squeeze on their vote could leave them with less than five members of parliament, in which case they lose the right to form a separate parliamentary group. Not surprisingly, IU have included reform of the electoral system in their program, and emphasise the issues where they differ from the PSOE. They need to convince their supporters that the most useful vote is one that keeps them where they are.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Election Songs

It's time to lighten things up a bit on the blog. Let's start with a magnificent mariachi performance in favour of Barack Obama, "hasta con plan de salud" isn't a line you find in the chorus of many songs.

Meanwhile, a Colombian song written in support of Mariano Rajoy has become the background for several videos, of which this is an example. I should point out that the song was produced before he decided to make immigrants the target of his campaign so I can't confirm if the authors have signed his integration contract.

Spanish General Election 2008....The Real Rajoy

I went to bed last night after the electoral debate between Zapatero and Rajoy feeling that neither of the two contenders had managed to land any kind of killer blow, in what was a tense and nervy encounter. However, it’s always difficult to disentangle your own feelings about the participants and take a cooler, more distant view. So this morning I decided to look first at a pro-Rajoy news source (El Mundo) to see how the political right had interpreted the debate. Once I saw that their poll had Zapatero as the winner then I realised that my own assessment wasn’t so affected by my (fully justified) prejudices against Rajoy. If anything, I had slightly overrated his performance. When I saw that even the PP controlled TeleMadrid had given Zapatero a slight advantage it confirmed the outcome.

In the end we didn’t get a fake Mariano Rajoy last night, the recent attempt by the PP to present their candidate as a relaxed, carefree, person was dropped in favour of the Rajoy that we already know very well. From the first intervention it was clear that he was hyped up and aggressive, and he maintained this attitude throughout the debate. Both the manner and the arguments used were typical of the PP’s opposition strategy over the last four years. Beginning with the economy Rajoy was better when he talked about concrete price increases, but his attempts to try and force Zapatero not to talk about general economic performance betrayed the weakness of the PP’s case on the economy – they only want to talk about the last 3-4 months. Spain is not in recession, despite the attempts to portray it as being in crisis, so the doom laden discourse of the PP on this issue has limitations; one of the reasons why they lost the economic debate held last week.

On immigration Rajoy was a predictable disgrace, portraying immigrants as taking more than they contribute from the Spanish state, and trying to link immigration and crime. Not a single word about their contribution to Spain’s economic growth, no mention of how their taxes pay the pensions of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards. In the face of this opportunist onslaught on those who can’t vote, Zapatero did well to point out some realities, most notably the fact that the PP left a huge number of immigrants in an unregulated limbo during their time in office. Great for those employers who want cheap unprotected labour, not so good for the immigrants or for the social security system. In the midst of this discussion, Rajoy revealed how in touch he is with the lives of his compatriots by showing he didn’t know what a bonobus is; the multiple journey ticket that any user of public transport should be able to identify. I predict this will quickly become as legendary as Zapatero's ignorance of the price of a cup of coffee.

Turning to terrorism we got a familiar PP discourse with Rajoy accusing Zapatero of deception and of having negotiated politically with ETA. Zapatero hit back with Aznar’s own negotiation with ETA and with the Madrid train bombings. Rajoy fell into the glaring contradiction that always seems to escape PP supporters, how can they claim that ETA was on its last legs when Aznar left office if at the same time they accused it of carrying out the biggest terrorist attack the country has ever seen? I felt Zapatero could have made more of the PP’s hypocrisy on this issue, but it is clear that the PP case is one more suited to campaign speeches where no one has right of reply. Other issues included an exchange on the reform of regional autonomy statutes. Zapatero waffled his way through this one a bit; it’s a difficult issue because it pleases his supporters in some parts of the country but not in others. He did challenge Rajoy on why the PP has voted in favour of things in some regions that it has challenged as unconstitutional in the case of Cataluña.

Despite lacking a bit of precision, and occasionally seeming unable to fill up his allotted time, in the end Zapatero held his own and with that probably achieved his objectives for the night. If the general perception sets in that he won the debate then there may even be further improvements in the opinion polls for the government. Rajoy needed more from this debate, but seems to have opted for a message that was aimed almost entirely at those who are already his convinced supporters. His aggressive style, steely eyed even when he was trying to smile, doesn’t go down well in the country which is one reason why he is so poorly rated as a leader in the polls. The question now is how the PP will approach next week’s debate between the two men, they used up a lot of their ammunition last night without inflicting damage. More of the same is unlikely to work. They could opt for trying to turn the second debate into a shouting match that puts voters off; a lower turnout in theory favours the more committed PP vote. They need to do something, having started the campaign effectively they are now losing the initiative as well as the debates. Mariano only has one journey left on his bus ticket.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....The Debates Make A Difference

Tonight sees the first electoral debate between Mariano Rajoy and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The fallout from last week’s debate on the economy demonstrates that the debates themselves may not be very interesting, but the consequences can be. Only the most ardent Partido Popular (PP) supporters claim that Manuel Pizarro won that debate against Zapatero’s Finance Minister Pedro Solbes. Sometimes no amount of post debate spin can change a perception that already seems to have translated itself into a bigger lead for the government in the daily tracking polls. The reaction of the party leaders to the debate tells its own story; Zapatero has repeatedly praised Solbes in his subsequent election speeches, whilst Rajoy has avoided mentioning the debate at all.

Pizarro was supposed to be the star signing for the PP in this campaign, but he demonstrated the other night that there is a big difference between knowing when to sell your stock options, and knowing anything about the broader economy in general. His most pathetic moment came when he attempted to avoid a proper explanation of how the PP would pay for the substantial tax cuts that they are proposing. Pizarro’s response that he would do it by abolishing the housing ministry and by not giving money to terrorists only demonstrated that they still haven’t tracked down anyone in PP headquarters with an economics degree and a calculator. Meanwhile Solbes showed that these events are not just about presentation alone. Nobody has ever accused him of being charismatic, and with one eye almost completely closed due to a recent illness he even had a faintly sinister appearance. Nevertheless, content triumphed over style.

The bounce in the opinion polls in favour of the government means that it is Rajoy who is under most pressure tonight; he needs to do something to try and arrest the momentum that Zapatero’s campaign has got from the unexpectedly clear victory for Solbes. Zapatero just needs to hold his own, and apart from controlling a tendency to improvise he can more or less be himself. Rajoy and his advisers have some tough choices, because an over aggressive approach could easily backfire on them, yet they need to put Zapatero on the defensive. The PP’s catastrophe laden discourse on the economy has now lost its force following Pizarro’s defeat, although Zapatero is much less secure on economic issues than Solbes. In recent days the PP has turned once again to its favourite theme of terrorism and its claims that Zapatero betrayed the country with his negotiations with ETA. However, it is one thing to use this issue in speeches to a supportive audience where no one has right of reply. Pressing it too much in a debate could invite Zapatero to respond on the PP’s own negotiations with ETA; not to mention their repeated manipulation of the Madrid train bombings.

Rajoy is naturally an abrasive debater, which has already cost him in his parliamentary clashes with Zapatero. He has been trying to promote a much softer image in the campaign, but if I was Zapatero I would go the debate armed with the (long) list of all the insults that Rajoy has directed at him over the last few years. Many of those insults come from Rajoy believing in his own superiority over his opponent, and it remains to be seen whether anyone has convinced him that this approach doesn’t work. He has to make the biggest effort to change his natural style and maintaining the pretence over two debates could prove to be difficult. The “debate” itself is really going to be a series of alternating short monologues by the contenders, with tightly controlled conditions agreed on everything from the issues to be discussed to the camera angles permitted and the temperature in the studio. It could well end up like one of those big football games which generate so much expectation, yet end up with the fear of losing dominating over everything else. Except that one of the contenders needs to score tonight.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....The Campaign Begins

It seems almost crazy to talk about the Spanish election campaign beginning now, when it seems like we have been in full campaign for months. Nevertheless, the official campaign period began at midnight last night; leaving us with just 16 days until the day of reflection that precedes election day itself on March 9th.

The election currently appears to be very tight between the governing PSOE and the Partido Popular (PP). At one point a few weeks ago it looked as if the gap in the opinion polls between the PSOE and the PP was widening slightly. If anything, the reverse has been the case as some of the most recent polls show the gap being as low as 1.5%. Although many analysts talk of the polls reflecting a stalemate or technical draw because of the margins of error, the reality is not quite that simple. There is still not a single poll that has put the PP in front of the PSOE, and the lead the PSOE has is occasionally greater than the 3% which is commonly assumed to be the margin of error. That said, there does seem to be a trend showing a slight increase in the PP’s support.

Other indicators included in the opinion polls tend to reinforce the idea of the PSOE being ahead, when it comes to evaluation of the party candidates then Prime Minister Zapatero consistently outscores PP leader Mariano Rajoy. On questions of competence for dealing with different issues, the PSOE does better in the majority of cases than the PP. The opinion poll scores we see on the front pages of the newspapers are heavily adjusted, the raw data on voting intentions shows a much bigger PSOE lead, but the results are then weighted to take into account factors such as likely abstention or those who tend to lie to opinion pollsters.

Analysts differ on whether the narrow gap the polls show is good for the government or not, some seem to think it will motivate abstention-prone PSOE voters to turn out as the threat of the PP returning to power becomes greater. It is seen as very bad news for Izquierda Unida (IU), the party to the left of the PSOE. The closer the gap between the two major parties the bigger the squeeze on the IU vote as some of their natural supporters switch to the PSOE in an attempt to prevent a PP victory. As if things weren’t complicated enough already, it is worth pointing out that the opinion polls in Spain have not been very accurate in predicting general election outcomes in the past. I am not just talking about the last election in 2004, where no one predicted what would happen after the train bombings. The polls have been wide of the mark in several elections, so surprises can never be completely ruled out.

Barring all major and unpredictable events, it is hard to see what will happen between now and election day to significantly change the current situation. The PP, having aggressively attacked to make the economy and factors such as immigration the focal points of the campaign, are probably going to be content with a relatively boring official campaign; they have consolidated and motivated their support and a higher rate of abstention tends to work in their favour. Hence the reported “gaffe” by Zapatero last week when he was recorded saying to a journalist that the government needed a bit of tension in the campaign to get their supporters out.

Huge attention will be devoted to the two televised debates which have been agreed between Zapatero and Rajoy after very protracted negotiations. At one point there was much speculation that the PP was seeking to avoid the debates as they insisted on only having them on the private channels of Telecinco or Antena 3. The PSOE offered five or six different alternatives and in the end the PP gave way and the independent television academy will organise the debates. This is the first election to see debates between the main contenders since 1993 when Felipe Gonzalez agreed to go head to head with José Maria Aznar. The debates will be held on the 25th February and the 3rd March, although the agreed format is so tightly controlled that the opportunities to score points are going to be few and far between. Last night saw a dreadfully tedious debate on the economy between the Finance Minister Pedro Solbes and his PP equivalent Manuel Pizarro. Majority opinion seems to think that Solbes edged it as Pizarro’s verbosity and lack of political skills undermined his case.

The campaign may become unbearable but the tension over the eventual outcome promises to make this election memorable. If the polls are correct, or even close to being correct, then Spain is not going to have a majority government come March 10th. In the past a winning party hitting over 40% of the popular vote could expect to have a parliamentary majority. The big difference this time could be that both major parties hit that figure. The post-election scenarios in such a situation ironically increase the power of the smaller parties – the possible post electoral alliances will I think be worth a blog post of their own.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cinema....The Oxford Murders

This film (titled Los Crimenes de Oxford in Spanish) is the first to be made made overseas by Spanish director Alex de La Iglesia. Based on a book of the same name by the Argentinian writer Guillermo Martinez, it is shot in English and has some well known names in the leading roles (John Hurt, Elijah Wood and Leonor Watling). I have to say that I went to see this film forewarned, Ben over at Notes From Spain had already posted on it and wasn’t impressed. Sad to say, I came out of the cinema at the end with a similar opinion to his.

In many ways it is a very traditional kind of film, a whodunit based around a series of murders that are said to be linked to a symbolic series – not for nothing do we see a Cluedo board in one of the scenes. Wood plays a postgraduate student who becomes involved in the mystery following the murder of his landlady. A professor at the university, played by Hurt, is the other principal character at the heart of the story.

The script is stilted and unconvincing, and the plot is developed almost entirely through what I would call “Holmes and Watson” moments of revelation as the Hurt-Wood pairing use their combined intellectual power to unravel the mystery. The police for some strange reason seem to feel happy with letting this odd couple lead the investigation. Meanwhile, there are other characters in the story whose only purpose for existing seems to be to provide us with a suitably large list of potential suspects.

Not having read the book I have no way of knowing whether the problem is the original story or the way in which it has been adapted. Perhaps it’s a case of what works on paper not transferring well to the cinema screen? A good murder mystery has to generate tension and draw you into the intricacies of the story bit by bit, the problem here is that the spectator is left passively waiting for the great minds to reveal their latest deductions. At the end of the film there were still some things I hadn’t fully understood about what had happened; the main problem was that it didn’t really bother me that much.

It’s a departure from the director’s usual style, and unfortunately I think the venture hasn’t worked – although the film seems to be doing reasonably well here in Spain. It’s a shame, because it’s yet another film that created expectations that are not fulfilled. My yardstick for a good De La Iglesia film still remains the same as before, if it doesn’t end with an action sequence on a building near or overlooking Madrid’s Gran Via then it doesn’t make the grade (La Comunidad or El Día de la Bestia).

Ellos Irán A Votar

I may not be able to vote in the Spanish election, but I have already passed this video to someone who can.

WARNING: This video contains images of very right wing people which some viewers may find offensive. Not suitable for young children or those of a sensitive disposition.

via El rey de la baraja

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Fill My Boat With Water

It’s been quite a while since I got as wet in Madrid as I did last night, splashing through the rain to support the doctors of Severo Ochoa. Now that I think about it, Doña Esperanza was showing great interest a couple of years back in the issue of seeding clouds to solve the water problems of the capital. Perhaps there is a connection?

In any case, the rain that has fallen this week in Spain has done little to solve what threatens to be an acute crisis this summer if we don’t get more. Madrid is probably alright for this year, as long as the suburban garden and swimming pool set don’t go crazy. The east of the country has much more serious problems, even in areas like the Pyrenees the reservoirs are at very low levels and the current half year (going by the hydrological calendar beginning in October) is set to be the driest in 60 years.

There has even been some talk of Barcelona getting drinking water shipped in by boat if things don’t improve. Ironically, that water could come from Almeria, which is perhaps the region which has the lowest annual rainfall of all in Spain. A huge new desalination plant in Almeria is currently only operating at a fraction of its capacity, serving the local area around it. So in a crisis further up the coast this plant could end up being used to fill the gap.

Water also features as an issue in the general election campaign. The plan to divert water from the River Ebro to regions such as Valencia and Murcia was abandoned by the current government in favour of more desalination plants. The Valencian regional government, controlled by the PP, has continued to push this plan and wanted it to be included in the party’s policies for the election. However, in a tightly fought contest votes in Aragon count as well; and the opposition to the plan in the regions through which the Ebro passes has made the PP nervous about stressing the issue. It would make little difference, even if this ecologically damaging plan had been implemented no water would have been transferred, because the Ebro is suffering from exactly the same problem as the rivers further south – no rain.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

La Española Cuando Besa

It happened yesterday. Not once, but twice. Forget the economy, terrorism, Kosovo, the bishops, electoral debates and all that nonsense, the really big issue of the election campaign has been when Esperanza Aguirre and Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón would once again exchange kisses. This follows their slight falling out over the question of whether Gallardón would get his wish to be on his party’s electoral list.

Since that fateful day when Gallardón lost his battle with Aguirre, a new academic speciality has developed which looks for the hidden meanings in all of his public pronouncements. It’s a bit like the Kremlinologists who used to analyse the speeches of Soviet leaders to find what was really meant by their words. The speech that Gallardón made at the end of Carnival was widely seen as a thinly disguised allegory of his battle with Aguirre. Coinciding the other day with Real Madrid star Raúl, Gallardón commiserated with the footballer over his exclusion from the national squad. Don’t worry if you are excluded from the national lists, said Alberto, there will always be others! Whatever could he mean?

Aguirre and Gallardón first kissed yesterday at the opening ceremony for the revamped bus and Metro station at Moncloa. The commemorative plaque of that event (above) says much about the differing styles of the two politicians. Aguirre gets a “Doña” and the full aristocratic surname. She didn’t include her DNI number because there wasn’t space. Meanwhile Gallardón is identified simply as the “Alcalde de Madrid”, no name or number. Whether he will ever be anything more than this remains to be seen.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Justice For Severo Ochoa

Having posted yesterday on a fraudulent demonstration in Madrid, tomorrow we have a different case altogether. The accusations made by the regional government of Madrid and friendly media against the doctors at the Severo Ochoa hospital in Leganés have been shown to be completely false. Despite Esperanza Aguirre claiming that she could always reinstate the doctors if the accusations turned out to be wrong, her administration has shown that it prefers to lie and distort the facts rather than admit that they got it all wrong. It hurts just to think that people who behave in this way are in charge of the health service for the whole region of Madrid. Tomorrow evening at 19:00 in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid there is a chance to protest that decision and call for the reinstatement of those doctors unjustly removed from their posts.

No Warm Spanish Welcome For Kosovo

The newborn state of Kosovo has at least one expense less as it starts life as a nation; there will be no need for the moment to send an ambassador to Spain. The Spanish government has today made clear what was already suspected to be the case, that they are not recognising the independence declaration by the Kosovans. The main reason for this is a fear of being seen to recognise rights of self determination overseas when the same right is not recognised within Spain itself.

Although there has been a welcome for Kosovo’s independence in some nationalist circles, it is probably fair to say that this has been fairly muted too, those who would like to see independence for Cataluña or the Basque Country are unlikely to see Kosovo as the model for achieving that aim; it is an impoverished state which will depend on foreign troops to defend its frontiers for some time to come. One of the ironies of the situation is that some of the troops currently stationed in Kosovo are Spanish, a little over 600 of them. This was an irony that escaped José Bono, who despite being a former defence minister seemed completely unaware of the Spanish contribution when he said a few days ago that Spain should send no troops there.

The Spanish right is even more nervous about anything that suggests that regions of countries can break away. El Mundo amusingly claimed the other day that the declaration of independence by Kosovo is yet another sign of how Spain has declined in influence since Zapatero came to power; as if Mariano Rajoy would have been able to prevent it from happening! With support from the US and other large European nations for independence, the Spanish stand makes little difference and the government almost certainly knows it. The Kosovan ambassador will probably arrive quietly in Madrid in a year or two.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Walking through the Plaza de España in Madrid yesterday afternoon, I came across a demonstration of people affected by the massive fraud that has been perpetrated by a couple of investment companies (Forum and AFINSA) specialising in stamps. It’s actually one of the first issues that I blogged about here on South of Watford. The strange thing about yesterday’s demonstration is that it wasn’t immediately clear it was about the stamp fraud at all, as the whole event seemed to be aimed at the government and at Prime Minister Zapatero in particular. At the front of the march were people handing out small leaflets claiming that the Partido Popular (PP) was going to compensate all of those affected by the scandal, and the chants of those behind the main banner were a straight copy of those used on so many of the PP inspired anti-government marches we have seen in Madrid in the last couple of years. The placards being waved were also almost entirely aimed at the government.

Given all of this, it is perhaps useful to clarify what has actually happened here. A couple of private investment companies appear to have defrauded thousands of their investors, something which is a crime and which will hopefully lead to the perpetrators being punished. These companies were operating under a regulatory framework put in place by the last government (run by the PP) and it seems quite likely that a large part of the fraud took place under that administration. Now clearly a large number of those affected seem to believe that the current government should compensate them for what has happened, a point of view which is understandable but arguable; as it amounts to the government guaranteeing all private investments. Frankly, I don’t believe that the PP will repay all of the money that these people have lost, and even if it is true it still is not an excuse for their cause to be turned into yet another thinly disguised PP anti-government protest. The current government is not responsible for their situation, and the original fraud they justifiably complained about has now been converted into a political fraud. Those affected almost certainly encompass people of all political opinions; sadly they are poorly represented by those who have hijacked their cause.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

How To Make The Headlines

South of Watford was interviewed on British television last weekend! It’s not quite as exciting as it sounds, but the story of how it happened is worth telling. Invited for lunch at my brother’s house, we found out on arrival that we were due to be joined at some point by a team from Anglia Television, the regional independent station for the East of England. My brother is a member of Cambridge City Council and had appeared a couple of days earlier in the local press with a proposal that the council should take a stand on animal cruelty and not use battery farmed chickens in any of its catering services. Now in politics you can never be sure which issue is going to attract most attention, and what seems like small beer can suddenly become something much bigger. So my brother had received the call that morning from Anglia and agreed to be interviewed on his proposal.

We started our lunch, unsure of when the television people would come calling, but shortly afterwards there was a knock on the door. It soon emerged that there was a problem with the staging of the interview, a chicken was needed and of course it had to be free range! We were having ham for lunch, and very nice it was too, but this didn’t meet the requirements for the story. So my brother quickly went off to the supermarket in search of a bird that was prepared to appear on television, returning shortly afterwards. Not only was the chicken to be filmed, but it was necessary to make it look as if it was about to be cooked. So my brother put the chicken on the roasting tray and quickly peeled a few vegetables to make it seem like we were all still waiting for our lunch instead of sitting there happily digesting it.

Having done the principal interview, a bit of vox populi was needed to provide the trimmings for the main dish. So an entirely random selection of members of the public consisting of the councillor’s partner and the councillor’s brother (me) were invited to give our views on the subject. Then we finished our lunch, the real one rather than the TV one. If it hadn’t been for the body that they fished out of a river somewhere in Norfolk, the item would have been the top story on the local news last Sunday, which probably demonstrates what a slow news day it was. Walking through Cambridge the next day I spotted an interviewer and cameraman waiting on my side of the street. “Not again” I thought. Just as I was about to reach them the interviewer turned to face someone coming in the opposite direction, “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions” she said. I just walked quickly by.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....The French Connection

The admiration of Nicolas Sarkozy expressed by a significant section of the political right in Spain has been evident over the last two or three years. The attraction is clear; a leader who can use straight talking right wing populism to electoral advantage is bound to appeal to those who instinctively reject the idea of a more centrist approach. Whenever any of Sarkozy’s admirers in the Partido Popular (PP) write about the man, you quickly sense a kind of “why can’t we have a leader like that?” longing in their words.

Well now PP candidate Mariano Rajoy has decided to try and fill that gap, and in the process take his party’s electoral campaign into new territory. The last week has seen the PP temporarily abandon their attempts to portray the country as being on the verge of economic collapse, instead the party has focused their campaign around immigration and crime. Inevitably, the borrowing of Sarkozy’s campaign methodology has meant that the race card had to be played with a proposal to make immigrants sign a contract obliging them to respect Spanish customs. When I suggested on a Spanish forum a couple of years ago that a PP desperate for votes would happily use racism in the election campaign I was scoffed at. Being vindicated doesn’t make me feel any better in this case.

There has since been a lot of amusing speculation on what the relevant Spanish customs to be respected could be. We don’t yet know whether the list includes ignoring traffic lights and talking loudly in cinemas. There have also been some much less funny insinuations from members of the PP. An anonymous scumbag from the PP suggested that “hygiene” was one of them, whilst Madrid super-sub Manuel Pizarro claimed that “not stealing” was another such custom. How he then explains the presence of almost 50,000 prisoners with Spanish nationality in Spain’s jails is something he hasn’t been able to help us with so far. In addition, the proposed contract contains the obligation to pay taxes, so the well established Spanish custom of massive tax fraud in the construction and sale of property is therefore one which is not available to the humble immigrant.

In addition, the PP has proposed measures on genital mutilation and the wearing of the veil. The PP president of Melilla then emphasised the discriminatory nature of the proposals by saying that Muslims in the North African enclave would be exempt from such measures because they are Spanish citizens. Turning to crime, the PP has suggested lowering the age of criminal responsibility and stiffening prison sentences. Many of the measures have been directly lifted from Sarkozy’s presidential campaign, along with the rhetoric about representing those who “get up early in the morning” to go to work for the good of their country. The obvious objection to this notion is that a large number of those who get out of bed early to clean the streets and offices for the luckier ones are the very same immigrants who are the target of this opportunist campaign.

Whilst Sarkozy was able to exploit the backdrop of the unrest in urban suburbs in France for his campaign, the PP in Spain has no similar situation. The vacuous nature of much of what they propose is illustrated by the fact some of the measures are already incorporated into law, and others are simply irrelevant to the issue they pretend to address. We do not walk the streets in Spain in fear of gangs of 12 year old criminals, the cases of genital mutilation are (thankfully) extremely low and issues caused by women wearing the veil are also few and far between. Of course the key in Sarkozy style politics is to offer dramatic sounding bogus “solutions” for issues that play on people’s fears, hence the emphasis on foreigners and crime; even better if you can associate the two in the public perception. That the solutions offered make no difference at all to anything (or even create problems where none existed before) should be evident to anyone who has studied Sarkozy’s progress in recent years.

The opinion polls have more or less returned to their previous positions after what seemed to be a brief surge in pro-government sentiment following the PP’s disastrous handling of their electoral list. Although votes count everywhere, with both main parties almost level the election could be decided by small swings in a relatively small number of electoral demarcations. The campaign has taken a nasty turn, and given that we are not yet in the official campaigning period it is easy to imagine that it could still get nastier.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Mind The Crack!

Returning from an amazingly sunny week in the UK, it feels a bit cold and gloomy today in Madrid. To resume blogging, let’s start with a reflection on Britain’s ever stronger safety culture, as a follow up to last years post on the surveillance and constant warnings you get now in public places. Spending a day in London I strolled through what was signposted as an “Alcohol Control Area” to get to the Tate Modern museum. My objective was a retrospective exhibition of work by the Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz. Entering the museum, I looked down into the massive Turbine Hall to see a long crack snaking its way lengthways across the floor of the room. It looked like the result of an earth tremor, and I assumed that some clever artist had stuck something to the surface of the floor to make it look like a crack. Once I went down the stairs, I realised that it was a work of art and that the crack was real; in the three dimensional sense, not because London has started getting earthquakes.

The work is by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo and the crack apparently prompts “a broader consideration of power’s divisive operations as encoded in the brutal narratives of colonialism”. You can walk freely around this work, and this is where the connection to the safety culture comes in; scattered equally freely around the hall were signs warning parents to hold onto their children because of the danger of falling. On the back of the booklet about the work was printed in huge type “Warning, please watch your step in the Turbine Hall”. Now the crack was real, and if you tried hard it was possible to trip on it, but the maximum depth at its deepest point was not much over 18 inches. You are probably more likely to damage yourself by focusing on the work itself and then falling over one of the warning signs. I suppose it’s all to guard against the possibility of someone suing and claiming that nobody warned them there was a huge crack in the floor! No wonder, in this atmosphere, that even government ministers are now trying to persuade British parents that they can allow their children to go out and play occasionally.

Meanwhile, the Muñoz exhibition was very good. I say this as someone who has always belonged to the “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like” section of society. Sculpture has rarely attracted my attention but some of the works by Muñoz are quite fascinating, combining sculpted figures with optical illusions. One room contains around 100 figures based on a single bust of an Asian man, all in smiling groups as if they were passing the time in a Beijing park. It was a strange sensation walking amongst the figures (quite safely, no warning signs here), and I was the only visitor in that room at the time. I first heard about this exhibition on the news here in Madrid and I seem to recall that it will be moving to Spain at some point, but if you are passing through London with time to spare before the 27th April then I recommend it. Just be careful, this blog accepts no responsibility for anything that happens to you as a result of your visit.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The South Poll

I’m going to spend the next week in the land of my forefathers, and I imagine that the week will leave me with little time for blogging. In the meantime, and to help keep you all usefully occupied, I’ve decided to open South of Watford’s first ever opinion poll (which you can see somewhere on the right hand side of this page). This is your chance, eligible voter in Spain or not, to express your opinion on the outcome of next month’s general election. Now this poll is a seriously unscientific exercise and I don’t want one of these silly Internet polls where only two men and a dog decide to participate; so vote early and above all vote often!

Election junkies will be interested in this page which gathers web information and developments from different sources on a daily basis. There has been much talk about how revolutionary the use of Internet is in these elections. Whilst there are some interesting developments and uses of the technology, in general I can’t find the filling of Youtube, Facebook and all sorts of other pages with electoral propaganda to be especially thrilling.

Cinema....The Best Film Is One You May Never See

I wonder how many readers of this blog have seen the film that took the prizes for best film and best director in this year’s Goyas ceremony; the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars. I certainly haven’t seen La Soledad, and according to something I read yesterday the film only gathered 41,000 spectators on what must have been a brief release period.

This year’s ceremony seemed to be going pretty much as predicted by the time I stopped watching some time after midnight on Sunday night. Most of the prizes were being split between El Orfanato and Las Trece Rosas, and it seemed a fairly safe bet at the time that one of those two films would get the award for best film. The ceremony is dragged out as much as possible and the “comic” filling leaves a lot to be desired, which accounts for my decision not to keep watching until the end.

Now my reference to the small numbers of spectators who have seen La Soledad is not intended to suggest that the film doesn’t deserve the prizes it won. I didn’t see the film when it came out, although I hope to do so with its now inevitable re-release. In fact neither of the main candidates for prizes were films that really impressed me. Las Trece Rosas was a good film, but not as good as it could have been. El Orfanato almost made it to the Oscars, and was an impressive debut feature length film from director Juan Antonio Bayona. However, it trod a similar path, and not quite as effectively, as that taken a few years ago by Alejandro Amenabar’s Los Otros. Too much reliance on creaking doors to create suspense.

It was good to see some recognition for the quieter, more intimate, cinema of Siete Mesas de Billar Francés, which brought a deserved best actress award for Maribel Verdú. Sadly, Iciar Bollain’s Mataharis was not rewarded at all, because for me it was one of the best Spanish films of the year. Sadder still was the fact that last year produced so few strong candidates for recognition, it was one of the weakest years I can remember for Spanish cinema and we can only hope it’s not an indication of things to come.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Lamela Hides Behind A Smokescreen Of Lies

The politician who was principally responsible for the witch hunt of the doctors working in the Leganés hospital of Severo Ochoa finally showed his face on Saturday. It wasn’t a pretty face either, Manuel Lamela put on a defiant show, claiming that he was proud of everything he had done. The general response by the Partido Popular (PP) in Madrid to a judicial verdict which undermines their entire case against the doctors has been one that is now familiar. Instead of just accepting that they got things wrong and making the best of a bad job, the PP have decided instead to make matters worse by lying on a grand scale about the whole affair.

Lie number one was a small one compared to the rest, Lamela’s absence during the week in which the court’s verdict was announced was initially explained as a working trip. When he was eventually discovered skiing in the snobby Pyrenean resort of Baqueira he insisted that he saw no reason to interrupt his holidays just because some doctors he had accused of murdering patients had been cleared of all charges. A hole in a wall in a Metro station in Madrid provoked by some tunnelling works was however enough to make him return in clandestine fashion to Madrid for a day, before resuming his holidays.

The really big lie comes with the manipulation of statistics. The PP has loudly claimed in the last few days that the number of patients dying in the casualty unit in Severo Ochoa has decreased dramatically since Dr. Luis Montes was relieved of his post. The implication being, nudge nudge, that something must have been going on there. Now the basic data is true, the number of overall deaths has decreased, but for reasons which have nothing to do with doctors allegedly bumping off their sick patients. A new hospital was opened in nearby Fuenlabrada which dramatically cut the numbers being attended at Severo Ochoa. Taking this into account, and despite an instruction given that terminally ill patients should not be allowed to die in casualty, it turns out that the numbers dying per 100,000 people treated have in fact increased substantially. The lie of the statistics is normally accompanied by another one claiming that Montes was removed for administrative reasons unconnected to the claims about involuntary euthanasia.

Just in case these lies don’t work, the rearguard defence comes with Lamela and company claiming that they did no more than pass on the anonymous accusations they had received. If this was the case, and sadly it isn’t, then they should equally have no trouble in restoring to their positions those who have now been cleared of any wrongdoing. The final deception is to invert the burden of proof, suggesting that if the courts cannot demonstrate that there was no malpractice, then that could mean that there really was. Who said the Spanish Inquisition was dead? Now the PP and their friendly media have of course spent much time over the last few years perfecting this technique, if you can’t prove that ETA wasn’t involved in the Madrid train bombings then that means that they were! It’s a callous, hard-faced, response which consists of covering each lie with an even greater one. That those affected should be victims of terror or doctors attending the sick makes no difference to those behind the lies. Dr Montes has now announced he will take legal action against those in the media who called him Dr Death as they casually tossed insults and accusations of mass murder at him and his colleagues. I wish him every success.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Divine Guidance

Today's reading from the COPE Bible is delivered by Reverend Losantos from the Unreformed Church of the Latter Day Fachas.

It was in the time of the Spanish elections and the people were confused. They gathered in the market place to discuss who they could support. “Let us consult with Moses”, said one, “for does he not speak directly with the Lord himself?

The crowd made their way through the narrow streets to the house of Moses. “Who shall we vote for, Moses, who? Tell us!” they cried. Moses dithered, for he was what they call an indeciso. “I’m not sure”, he said to the people, “but I shall climb the mountain and seek guidance from the Lord.

So Moses climbed the mountain. At the top all was cloudy and dark. Moses took his staff and struck the rock a mighty blow; slowly the clouds parted and the Lord appeared before him.

Oh it’s you, what do you want?” said the Lord.

Oh Lord, the people seek guidance for the elections, they know not who to support” said Moses.

We don’t do that Moses, we are above the day to day party political squabble. It’s the spiritual stuff that we do. Since you’re here, however, I can offer you a couple of basic guidelines.

Unblessed are the peacemakers, for they shall not negotiate with the terrorist.

Moses pondered for a moment. “But Lord”, he said, “all of our governments have negotiated with the terrorists, even the angry little man with the moustache did it, please help us to choose.

No vote from the faithful shall go to the abortionists.

Again, Moses sought clarification. “Is it not so Lord, that all of our governments have also accepted the law of abortion?

The Lord sighed deeply, and began to wonder if there were not better ways of communicating with the faithful. “Beware the symbol of the red rose, for it shall bring pestilence, plague and much strife throughout the land” he declared, and with that the clouds closed in and all was silent on the mountain.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Particle Physics

It’s really quite striking sometimes how people are able to view the same events in such different ways; as if the world was turned upside down. I often get this feeling with news items related to traffic in Spain, as the weather gets the blame for yet another horrific pile up rather than the accident being the fault of the moron who decided to drive at 180 km per hour in a blizzard.

It happened again this week as we were informed that 90% of the pedestrians who get run over by traffic in Madrid are not hit on pedestrian crossings, the suggestion being that they get what they deserve for crossing the road where they shouldn’t. Clearly a news item prepared from the point of view of a driver. Now it’s a little known but scientifically proven fact that 71% of Madrid drivers are homicidal maniacs. This percentage rises to 98.47% in the case of taxi drivers, and I don’t intend to suggest in any way with these figures that the rest are not dangerous! Crossing the road on an established crossing place in Madrid is an adventure sport on a par with rock climbing and canyoning in terms of potential dangers. So it can hardly come as a surprise that pedestrians attempt to cross the road in places where the traffic does not immediately accelerate the moment they see a light changing to red.

Another person who sees the world in a very different way is Ana Botella, potential future Madrid mayor and spouse of an embittered ex Prime Minister. A case in point was her explanation last week of the, ehem, slight air quality problem that Madrid is experiencing. Ana, or Mrs Bottle if you prefer, has a way of explaining things that brings to mind a nursery teacher talking to a class of 3 year olds. In her case I don’t think it’s because she feels the need to simplify her explanation, it’s more to do with how she gets to grips with the issue herself. Anyway, Ana told us that there are two kinds of particles in the air. There are the unnatural ones, which come from cars, and the natural ones (which come from Africa). You might think that the baddies in this story would be the horrible unnatural particles that come from all those cars clogging the streets and mowing down anyone who tries to walk anywhere, but you’re wrong. The particles that caused the problem for anyone with respiratory difficulties were the natural ones, whether this was because they were African is something which Ana has not helped us with. So there you have it, it’s all case of how you look at things. On the other hand, maybe Ana has a point - look what happens when the two kinds of particles mix:

Friday, February 01, 2008

This Is The Land Of The Free, Provided You Agree With Me

A truly amazing festival of intolerance has been whipped up around a proposed visit by the president of the Basque regional government to Stanford University in February. Juan Jose Ibarretxe has been invited to speak at Stanford on his views on the way forward for the Basque Country. It would seem to be something of a coup for the university to have first hand input from one of the main political players in the Basque political scene.

However, the invitation to Ibarretxe has provoked an online petition calling on Stanford to block his visit, apparently initiated by some Spaniards resident in the US. This petition has so far attracted several thousand signatures. It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to work out from which side of the political spectrum those supporting this initiative come from. The message many of those commenting are trying to put across is that Ibarretxe is a terrorist supporting monster, a sort of Basque combination of Pol Pot and Adolf Hitler. Now Ibarretxe is not my favourite politician, his brand of conservative nationalism doesn’t do anything for me; but he is the elected representative of what is by a long way the party that attracts most electoral support in the Basque country. He is not a terrorist or a supporter of terrorism, a fact which is inconvenient for those who would portray all nationalists as effectively being part of ETA.

I suspect many of those signing the petition are from the community of permanently angry rightists that spend half their lives hanging around Libertad Digital blogs talking about how Zapatero is plotting the partition of Spain with ETA. One thing that I have noticed about these people when they appear on international sites is that they always try to pass off their rabid and extremist views as being the voice of the ordinary Spaniard. Seeking to take advantage of a presumed lack of knowledge overseas about the Spanish political scene, they use massive exaggeration and outright lies in an attempt to drown out any voices that they don’t want to be heard. It’s a concept of liberty of expression that is strictly limited to those that share their extreme views. Fortunately, Stanford shows every sign of ignoring their protest.