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.

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