Monday, October 27, 2008

By The Skin Of Their Teeth

Spain's minority government survived its big autumn test last week by getting the budget for 2009 approved. In the end the suspense on whether they would get sufficient support went all the way up to the wire, although they only needed 7 extra votes to get a majority. To the rescue came the Galician nationalists of the BNG, and the Basque nationalists of the PNV. All the other parties opposed the budget, with the peculiar exception of Navarra’s ruling UPN. When it came to the crunch the government got the support they needed by the reasonably simple method of offering pots of money to their allies in the vote. The great thing from the point of view of the recipients is being able to accept the pot of money and at the same time proclaim to anyone who will listen that you have been acting "responsibly” by voting in favour.

In other years when the economic situation was better it might not have mattered so much if the budget had been rejected, you can always prolong the previous one. This year, however, special provision has to be made for falling tax receipts combined with an increase in social spending to deal with the significant rise in unemployment, something which can reasonably be expected to get worse next year. Also, I found out yesterday, if the government loses a key vote in the first year of a parliament they are not able to call fresh elections until the year is up, not that it would do them much good at the moment to have that option available. The government continues to live from day to day, with upcoming elections in the Basque Country and the unresolved financing scheme for the regions still making any longer term understanding with the parties that could guarantee their majority virtually impossible.

The regional factor didn’t just affect the PNV and the BNG. One of the more surprising consequences of the otherwise tedious budget negotiations has been that it has virtually provoked a rupture between the opposition PP and their allied party in Navarra, the UPN. The latter party depends on support from the PSOE to stay in power in Navarra, and consequently decided that it was in their interests for their two members in the national parliament to abstain on the budget vote. When faced with a choice between staying in power or respecting the wishes of the PP’s national leadership they didn’t hesitate – despite intense pressures and at least two “power” lunches between UPN leader Miguel Sanz and Mariano Rajoy. The PP has now declared their alliance with the UPN to be “suspended”, which doesn’t mean yet that they are about to restart the PP in the region but the implicit threat is being made. Meanwhile the UPN leadership has retaliated with sanctions against their members closest to the PP line. It’s not so long since the PP was organising demonstrations in support of the UPN in Navarra and against the alleged evil plans of Zapatero to hand over the territory to ETA and its allies. How times have changed.

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