Saturday, February 28, 2009

Election Results In Galicia And The Basque Country 2009

With what promises to be a tense vote count tomorrow in both Galicia and the Basque Country, the widget wizards of have done it again. Following on from their innovative presentation of the results in last year's general election, here you have a widget which will show the full results of tomorrow's regional elections in the Basque Country and Galicia as they are announced in the evening. In the meantime you can use this to check on what happened in the previous elections.

Updated 12:00 1st March

The abstainers will decide the day, seems to be the verdict of the press this morning. Although it's a common assumption that high abstention hurts the left more than the right the situation is a bit more complicated in two regions with an important nationalist sentiment. The PSOE is worried that the effects of the economic crisis in some of the more industrial towns of Galicia could cause some of their voters to stay at home, improving the chances of the PP getting the small increase they need to regain power. In the Basque Country abstention also threatens the ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), one report I read this morning suggests they need a 70% turnout to ensure that they maintain power. This seems a bit over the top, as a level of participation this high hardly ever occurs in regional elections there.

An interesting analysis this morning from Ignacio Escolar on the possible consequences of today's election for the power struggle inside the PP, coupled with the ongoing fallout from the corruption and spying scandals. He suggests that if things don't go well for Mariano Rajoy the main threat to his position will no longer come from Esperanza Aguirre and friends.

Updated 15:00

The data released on participation up to 12:00 shows it to be about 4% down on 2005 in Galicia, but slightly up on the previous elections in the Basque Country. Could just mean that the Galicians have decided to wait until the rain stops....

Updated 17:00

One factor to bear in mind in Galicia's case is the overseas vote. If the election is very tight then there may not be a definitive result tonight, it could take another week to count the votes of Galicians living in other countries; mainly in South America.

Updated 18:30

Using state of the art methods of which I naturally cannot disclose details, the South of Watford Centre for Unreliable Electoral Forecasts has issued the following prediction for today's elections. A disappointing evening for the PSOE is in store as the PP narrowly squeeze home in Galicia and the PNV maintain their position as the largest party in the Basque Country and may even have a majority to govern as Aralar increase their representation. That's it, it will almost certainly be wrong.

It looks like I was right about the rain though, as participation in Galicia is now said to be above that of the previous election by a couple of percentage points.

Updated 20:10

The exit polls have the PP on the edge of an overall majority in Galicia, and the PNV winning in the Basque Country.

Updated 22:00

It looks very much as if the PP are going to win in Galicia, currently they have one seat more than they need for a majority and it has stayed that way pretty much throughout the count. I don't know whether the overseas vote can significantly alter that result.

In the Basque Country things are much less certain. Until about half an hour ago it seemed that there could still be a potential coalition led by the PNV, who are going to emerge as the biggest party. Then suddenly the PP seemed to leap from 11 to 13 seats and now there is a possible majority between the PSOE and the PP, with most of the votes counted.


I think I said in another of my posts on Ecuador that it is very easy to travel around the country using public buses. That statement needs a bit of qualification, New Year's Day is just not a good time to travel in this country. We stood patiently by the Panamerican highway in Machachi trying to flag down buses to take us to Baños, but the few that came were already full and in the end we gave up and paid a local taxi driver to take us.

I had an image of Baños being some kind of equatorial travellers paradise, the town is named like this because of the thermal springs that emerge there. Instead what we found on New Years Day was quad bike hell. It seemed as if half the country had decided that this was a good day to visit the town, and clearly that visit has to include the whole family balanced precariously on a quad bike doing endless circuits around the streets. About an hour after arriving I was already starting to feel a bit depressed, why did we leave Cotopaxi to come here was the question that nagged at me. Things got worse when we saw the baths

The town itself is nothing very special to look at, although the surroundings are quite spectacular when they are not shrouded in mist. There are green hills on all sides.

Fortunately most of the visitors come for the day and in the evening the place is a bit more relaxed. There are plenty of restaurants, and some of them will prepare that Andean delicacy, the cuy. It’s not cheap, buying one of these for your dinner can cost about three times the price of a good steak.

We tried it, it wasn't too bad but to be honest between two it left us a bit hungry and we needed to go somewhere else and buy a piece of chicken to feel that we had really eaten. There is always plenty of the locally made sweet to buy if you feel like having more food. As the picture suggests, it’s a bit chewy!

Baños has a significant problem, and I'm not talking about the quad bikes. The problem is called Tungurahua, it's the volcano just a short distance away and it is currently in a very active phase. Just before we first entered the town, we could see where the lava flow had cut the main road not so very long ago. Baños itself had to be entirely evacuated at one point because of the threat of eruption, although eventually the residents got fed up and returned to their homes. On our first full day here we took one of the tracks that make their way up the hillside behind the town. It was raining, a lot, and the tops of the hills were completely covered in clouds. Anyway, we persevered and made our way up to the view point known as Bellavista. The problem in my experience with places called Bellavista is that you are either confronted with a thick wall of mist, or a vast treeless plain. In this case it was the former, so we carried on walking up to a nearby village where we took temporary refuge in the covered sports arena. Nobody was on the streets except us.

Our target for the day was the "mirador del volcan", supposedly a fine viewpoint to see the volcano. Given the conditions, we didn't have high expectations, but on we went. The path is signposted but in a misleading way; the distances marked on the signs change but not in the way you expect so at one point we found ourselves theoretically further away than we had been at the previous sign. Eventually arriving at the mirador we couldn't see further than about 70-80 metres in front of us, although at least the rain was not so heavy. However, although we couldn't see the volcano we could certainly hear it. Is there an equivalent of mirador in Spanish for places where you can hear but not see; “el escuchador del volcan” perhaps? Having been close to a few active volcanoes now I've learnt that what really makes a noise is not necessarily the eruption itself, it's the boulders that get thrown into the air as they bounce down the slopes of the mountain. It starts as a low rumbling sound which then becomes a series of individual crashes. We could certainly feel the presence of the mountain, even if we couldn't see it. This was as close as I needed to get to it, and we turned to make our way back to the town, the clouds having cleared enough to give us at least a view from above.

What else is there to do in Baños? Rafting is one option, bicycle and (sadly) quad bike hire is very simple. The guide books tell you of a long ride you can do down to Puyo. This may at one time have been a nice experience, but my partner did part of it on our last day in town and she said that the traffic on this road makes cycling a bit unpleasant and potentially dangerous. Although the scenery further down does look very nice

Tungurahua was to stay invisible throughout our whole stay in the Baños, not until we got to Riobamba a few days later were we able to get any kind of view of it. Some believe that La Virgen de Baños will continue to protect the town against the volcano’s wrath, I'm not convinced and the entertaining series of paintings in the basilica telling of the miracles performed still weren't enough to change my feeling that one day the mountain might win.

The town has dozens of agencies offering all sorts of excursions and is a useful stop off point particularly if you plan to head down from here to the Amazonian forest. However, many of the excursions offered are in other places where you can probably organise them yourself without paying the extra premium of being transported from Baños. To be frank, some of these places are almost certainly nicer to stay in than Baños itself. I left without regrets, although in the end it wasn't quite as bad a place as my first impressions led me to believe.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Yesterday's Hero Becomes Today's Villain

The Partido Popular finally acted this week on their repeated threats against judge Baltasar Garzón, and presented an accusation of perverting the course of justice against him. The corruption scandal which has led to this reaction, Operación Gürtel, is inching towards the stage where Garzón will probably have to surrender jurisdiction on the case to the courts which have the job of dealing with those protected by some variety of immunity because of their political position. In the case of members of the regional autonomous asemblies, this corresponds to the Supreme Court of the region concerned. In the case of national political figures then the national Supreme Court must deal with the accusations.

The PP have not just accused him of perverting the course of justice, they have also called for him to be banned from acting as a judge for a period of between 10-20 years. The latest twist in the case has been the indication, still not confirmed fully, that those accused could include the PP's national treasurer Luis Bárcenas. This potentially threatens to turn the case into one of illegal party financing, if it's established that any of the significant sums of money circulating managed to find their way into the PP's coffers. Further information has surfaced on the companies linked to the case. The companies involved have received contracts worth about €20 million from the national government when Aznar was in power, and the regional governments of Madrid and Valencia. It's 19:00 on Friday 27th February and Mariano Rajoy still hasn't explained why he so abruptly broke all connections the national party had with the companies concerned a few years ago.

Meanwhile another corruption case has come to light today, involving a municipality called Alcaucín near Malaga. Thirteen people have been arrested on suspicion of construction related corruption. Strangely there have been no attacks from the PP on the judge ordering the arrests nor has the judge in this case been faced with multiple threats of legal action. Neither have there been any suggestions that it is somehow illegitimate for arrests to be made just before an important election. Someone will probably say that this is because the municipality affected is run by the PSOE. We can be fairly sure, however, that the top "investigative" teams from ABC, La Razón, El Mundo and probably Telemadrid are already descending on the village concerned.

It seems like an appropriate moment to point out that the PP has not always been such a strong critic of the judicial system, nor of Baltasar Garzón. Indeed, there was a time not so many years ago when senior PP figures and their media allies were falling over themselves in the rush to praise Baltasar. This was, of course, when Garzón was pursuing the GAL case involving the PSOE administration led by Felipe Gonzalez. One of the great things about Internet is the ease with which its possible to find what people have said in the past and compare it to their current positions. Here is a small selection:

Pedro J Ramirez, director of El Mundo, wrote in 1991

“Garzón es motivo de orgullo de la ciudadanía […], tan honrado y pertinaz como el legendario John Sirica (juez principal del Watergate)”.

“Príncipe de la Magistratura (…) diestra arma justiciera, que dibuja en la pizarra de la historia uno de los más memorables guiones torcidos de Dios”.

Rodrigo Rato, merchant banker and former vice-premier under Aznar, speaking in 1999....

“No es admisible que se hable de politización de la justicia y de instrumentalización política de la justicia, sería muy correcto que el PSOE dejara de hacer responsable a los demás de sus problemas” (…) El PSOE pone “en grave peligro y deterioro las instituciones españolas básicas”.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

No Cheap Fares From Renfe If You Don't Speak Spanish

Not learning the language of the country where you live can always have its costs, but it seems that in the case of Spanish train services that cost can be very high. An item in the Guardian caught my eye this morning, they were advising that you should always use the native language site when booking train tickets in Europe as the prices offered can differ according to the language. They cited the Spanish train operator Renfe as an example of this. Can this really be true I asked myself? Off I went to the Renfe website and looked for a day when they offer the cheapest prices for the high speed AVE between Barcelona and Madrid. Here it is, on April 22nd you can travel from Barcelona to Madrid for a bargain €43.80 leaving at 9 in the morning. You'll need to double click on the image to see it properly.

Now try changing the language on the site to English and look for the same train on the same day. You get offered a different interface and all of a sudden it seems that the same journey on the same train will cost €109.50. I would imagine that the difference of €66 on a single journey might pay for enough Spanish classes to enable anyone to use the Renfe website.

Now there is a way around this - once you're inside the Spanish booking process you can set the language to English, it sends you back to the beginning but you do get to see the same cheap tickets. How many non-Spanish speakers get that far is an open question.

Even more alarming for those who worry about the cohesion of the country is that the special fare doesn't seem to be available for Basque, Catalan or Galician speakers either! That could tip the balance in favour of independence. The organisations that claim Spanish is discriminated against in other parts of the country get to ship their demonstrators from Madrid at a cheap price, but nobody can do it the other way round! To be fair, the multilingual part of the site does seem to be a work in progress, but then to be unfair it probably always has been.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hay Liga....But For How Long?

Until now I hadn't even bothered with the thought of doing a half-way summary on the Spanish Liga because, let's be frank, it all seemed a bit boring with Pep Guardiola's Barcelona seemingly running away with the title. Then, in the space of a week, Real Madrid manage to cut Barça's advantage by 5 points and the Spanish media shouts in unison "¡Hay Liga!". We'll see, there's no real sign yet that Barcelona are going to throw the rest of their advantage away, but it tells you everything you need to know about the advantage they built up that Real Madrid can win 9 consecutive games and still trail their rivals by 7 points. As for the other "contenders", it looks as if this year there might be a place available in the Champions League for teams that finish 20-30 points behind the real champions. As I'm about to go out and watch Real Madrid play Liverpool I think I'll focus on the Madrid club for this post.

The most remarkable thing about this season is that Real Madrid are able to put together such an impressive run given the way they started and the chaotic way in which the club is run. Having lost one coach and one president, nobody really imagined that Madrid would be a contender for anything this year. The departure of Bernd Schuster was already being predicted before the season began, he made little effort to hide his disenchantment with the club's choices on signing new players he didn't want and an unwillingness to accept the way the club operates just meant it was a matter of time before he was axed. His (temporary?) replacement is Juande Ramos, a much better coach than his unhappy spell in the Premier League suggests. Then there was the departure of the president Ramón Calderón, who was elected in murky circumstances and left following revelations about how the club's annual assembly was fixed in his favour.

We are left with a reasonable suspicion that the team works better when there is no president to mess around with it. Because Real Madrid does not have a team manager, in the Alex Ferguson sense of the word. Instead, most of the decisions concerning recruitment of new players are taken by the president and whoever he appoints to oversee the current coach. The latter often seems to exist merely to take the rap when things go badly, and even before Schuster's dismissal I noticed that Madrid had averaged more or less one coach a year since 1997. Calderón's sporting director, former player Pedja Mijatovic, was the main thorn in Schuster's side but is now said to be a dead man walking as he continues to occupy his post but exercises no power following the departure of his mentor. Even if Ramos was to pull of the miracle of winning the title this season, there is no guarantee that he won't be replaced by the next president. Both of his predecessors in the job, Schuster and Capello, were sacked shortly after winning the title and there will be fresh presidential elections in the summer.

The club is left as something of a prestigious wreck, having been the plaything of egotistical businessmen for too long. The fans should never complain about this situation, at Real Madrid they elect the president and their choices in recent years have shown a clear tendency in favour of people who have done very well out of Spain's construction boom. All of those mentioned so far as candidates seem to fit the familiar profile of figures who regard their economic success as proof of their fitness to run a football club; but it rarely works out that way. Amazingly, it seems that one of the candidates this time around will be former president Florentino Perez, despite his having walked away from the job when things weren't going to plan. Another potential candidate is Juan Villalonga, best known for having presided Telefonica a few years back; a job he got because of his extensive telecommunications experience and because he went to school with Jose Maria Aznar. Villalonga just seems to want to run a football club, and any one will do. Last year he was briefly given a role at Valencia, to do with economic exploitation of the club'ss assets, but then got quickly shifted out again as part of the infighting at that club - which is apparently struggling to pay its wage bill at the moment. Now there are even rumours that Aznar himself might form part of a candidacy, I assume that to be Villalonga's. A frightening thought but better than having him in charge of the country. All of this suggests that little will change, and that a club which has again succeeded in becoming heavily indebted despite its pelotazo a few years back will continue its erratic progress, with the silverware won unlikely to match the investment on expensive but mismatched players that underpins it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Common Touch

Here's an entertaining little snippet from the Galician election campaign. It seems that the PP candidate for president of this region, Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, decided that he needed to connect with Galicia profunda in his search for votes so off he went to visit a dairy farmer. The dialogue between the two men went something like this:

Feijóo: "Why do all your cows have female names?"
Farmer: "Because they are cows"

Via La Trinchera Digital

Monday, February 23, 2009

Bermejo A La Gallega

Today's recipe. Take one slightly charred justice minister, remove the head and throw the rest away. Slowly stew the head in its own juices for a couple of days with occasional stirring. When it’s finally overdone, stick an apple in its mouth and present to the electorate on a silver platter together with the probably vain hope that the voters will then expect a similar offering to be presented by your rivals. The decision today by Justice Minister Mariano Bermejo to resign must count as an unexpected success for the Partido Popular and their media allies. As diversionary campaigns go, that against Bermejo has exceeded expectations as it became clear that the noise over Bermejo's hunting trips could end up affecting what is already being seen by some as an unsteady PSOE campaign in Galicia. Add to that the fact that much of Bermejo’s own party doesn't feel very comfortable defending his onslaught on the wildlife of various Spanish regions. Hunting is a more popular sport in Spain than it is in the UK for example, but hunting Bermejo style was too associated with images of heavily armed landed gentry roaming their private estates.

All the opinion polls over the weekend indicate that the regional elections in both Galicia and the Basque Country are going to be very tight and March 1st promises to be a tense day. In Galicia the polls suggest that voting intentions have barely changed since the last election 4 years ago. The significance of that lies in the fact that the PP fell just one seat short of a majority last time around, so they just need to do a little bit better to regain control from the governing alliance between the PSOE and the nationalist BNG. PP leader Mariano Rajoy is campaigning in these elections as if his life depended on the result, and there was a widespread feeling that a failure to recover control in Galicia would be fatal to his chances of remaining as leader. That's not so certain now, the closing of the ranks inside a PP that tries to present itself as the victim of a political attack by Baltasar Garzón and hunting associates is paradoxically making it much harder for Rajoy's internal enemies to attack him. Confidence has risen in the PP with a couple of the polls suggesting they are on the edge of getting that majority, a nervous PSOE will be looking to hit back after the Bermejo affair but they haven't got long.

Spirits in the PSOE in the Basque Country have been much higher, although the weekend polls still suggest that the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) will emerge as the biggest party, albeit without a natural coalition majority. The PSOE are still set to increase their vote significantly, but maybe not enough to strike the important blow of getting more votes than the PNV. Whilst sections of the right wing press are getting enthusiastic about the possibility of a non-nationalist alliance between the PSOE, the PP and possibly even the new party UPyD, the PSOE don't want even to discuss such an option at the moment. This is not necessarily because it will never happen, it's just that such a prospect will be used by the PNV to mobilise their more reluctant voters. The last time there was serious talk of a PSOE-PP government in the Basque Country was in 2001, in that election the PNV ended up getting their highest ever vote. If the PSOE do emerge as the strongest party, the nationalists may just decide to try and force them into an unhappy alliance with the PP.

A key factor in the Basque Country is that this is the first regional election where no party linked to ETA's illegal political wing Batasuna has been able to overcome the hurdle of the Ley de Partidos. The arguments used to justify the continuing illegalisations become increasingly bizarre. If up to now we had the dangerous notion that a failure to pronounce on an issue is sufficient proof of guilt, this time around things got worse. One party, D3M, was illegalised on the grounds that several members of their lists had connections to Batasuna. In the case of Askatasuna the argument advanced was that the absence of such connections was evidence of the intent to deceive! That closes the circle nicely. One party with quite a variation in their poll ratings is Aralar, a break off organisation from Batasuna who have explicitly rejected the use of violence by ETA. If they can convince enough of Batasuna's natural constituency not to abstain then they could emerge from the election as the embryo of a new future for radical nationalism; as well as perhaps tipping the balance towards a nationalist coalition. Tomorrow’s recipe….stuffed Bermejo.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Saturday, February 21, 2009

First They Came For The Clichés....And I Did Nothing

As the Partido Popular attempts to fight back against the serious corruption charges facing some of their members and collaborators, they have taken the status of victimhood a little bit too far. Both Esperanza Aguirre and Valencian regional president Francisco Camps have resorted to comparing themselves and their party with victims of the Holocaust in recent days. For some reason the poem they cite or paraphrase in their defence is being almost universally attributed to Bertolt Brecht, whereas I have always understood it to be the work of Martin Niemoller. Apart from the odd situation of PP members citing such a well known "rojo" as Brecht, you would have thought that all those so expensively educated by priests would have got things right. Especially as Niemoller was a priest himself. Although he was one of those. A Protestant, that is. There is always something instinctively repugnant about people using a poem symbolically linked with such a massive genocide to try and describe their own far less appropriate situation. If the PP really want a quote from Brecht to help them describe the current situation in their party what's wrong with "Beggars are begging, thieves thieving and whores whoring"?

Meanwhile, reports suggest that one of Spanish cinema's big hits in 2010 could be "Bring Me The Head Of Mariano Bermejo". The keen hunter and occasional justice minister is said to be on the list of those who could be shuffled out of the government next year. If Bermejo goes it will be because the mess over his hunting activities has given the PP a tale which they can use to distract from their own misdemeanours. El Mundo manages to headline with Bermejo every day at the moment, whilst stories of serious theft and corruption involving "another party" are buried further down the page. Bermejo failed to pay his hunting licence in Andalucia, and has apparently used his ministerial powers to go hunting in state owned properties where mere mortals would not be allowed to slaughter animals; with or without a licence. He has an image problem, and hasn't reacted well to the situation. Also on the list for a reshuffle could be the minister of Public Works, Magdalena Alvarez. Things are not looking good for her, she's already been sent to Siberia.

Friday, February 20, 2009

I Demand An Investigation Into This Investigation!

Already buried in news terms by the huge volume of revelations of corrupt activity from "our other corruption case is a bigger one", Esperanza Aguirre is of course getting her evil way with the commission of investigation into the Madrid political spying affair. Having already announced the results of the commission before it was even formed, this is hardly surprising. Likewise, the investigation was given a date to finish before its members had been been told when they might be able to start holding hearings. Not that it matters too much, the party responsible for the spying has a majority on the commission supposedly set up to clarify it all.

Nevertheless, the proceedings provide yet another insight into how politics is conducted under the control of the Aguirre Gang. The opposition submitted a long list of requests for documentation that might quite quickly shed light on what had happened; focused on the activities of the security department which seemingly has no other reason for existing if there is no spying to be done. The PP responded by requesting documents on all spying or corruption issues anywhere in Spain which had no connection whatsoever with the Comunidad de Madrid. Expecting the opposition to vote against these requests, the PP then found themselves having to vote down their own eccentric proposals as the rest of the commission sat on their hands. At the same time they downed all requests for any relevant documents. At least the commission has finally demonstrated a useful application for Twitter, as one of the members has decided to use it keep people informed of what is going on.

Now, just to close the circle ever so neatly, the chair of the commission has resigned so that he can fight to demonstrate his innocence against the widespread suspicion that he is on the list of those who could end up accused in Baltasar Garzón's case. Confusing, I know, but both cases deal with inhabitants of the same scummy pond. Somebody commented to me tonight that there didn't seem to be much money involved in the Garzón case, but if you take just a couple of the operations involved from the relatively small town of Boadilla del Monte you are already talking about several million euros.

On the other hand I should retract what I said the other day about the scandals affecting the PP in Valencia. It turns out that the president of that region, Francisco Camps, has a character witness of such extraordinary standing and repute that no sane person would even dare to question his integrity. The man of a hundred bank accounts and legendary lottery winner, Carlos Fabra, has said he will put his hand in the fire for Camps. These are words which Mariano Rajoy has very carefully avoided using in support of those touched by the scandals, but what would he know compared to a specialist such as Carlos?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cry Me A River

It was in the second year of the period of the Vak Asflak As and hunger had spread throughout the great city of Madrid; for the people had no work. There was much wailing and moaning and even the locusts no longer came. Groups would gather disconsolately on the bridges of the capital to watch the mighty River Manzanares pass by the famished city. "If only our Pharaoh would give us work planting trees in the oasis, then we could feed our families!", cried someone.

The Pharaoh Gayadonn did not listen to his people, instead he fined them for blocking the bridges. "The people must be patient and should not worry", said Gayadonn as he surveyed the city from the heights of his great Tel E Kom Palace. "In only two short years the elections will be held and there shall be work and bread for all, at least for all that are still here". Then he fell silent and contemplated the view from his chambers, facing as it did towards the holy site of Mon Klo Ah, just beyond the Temple of Debod. The people were not convinced but saw that there was little they could do.

After a while Gayadonn left the window and found a large group of citizens standing behind him taking careful notes every time he spoke. "It is pleasing to see such interest from the people in my words", he declared. "These are no ordinary people my Pharaoah", said one of his advisers, "they are the spies sent by Ah Gi Ray to watch you". Gayadonn was about to say "So much attention for someone who does so little", but then he thought better of it.

It's your chance to play Spot The Difference on South of Watford. Of course it's a special crisis edition of Spot the Difference, so thousands of cash prizes cannot be won. All you have to is compare these recent photos of Madrid's flagship Proyecto Madrid-Rio with the ones that I took just over a year ago.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Las Manzanas Podridas

It's hard to know which corruption scandal to write about at the moment, but let's leave the tale of the fraudulent commission of investigation for another day. Judge Baltasar Garzón has rejected attempts by the Partido Popular to have him removed from the serious corruption case that he has opened against various people associated with the PP. To challenge Garzón, the PP needs to be formally involved in the case, so they petitioned for the role of "acusación popular" in which persons or organisations affected by a case can effectively form part of the prosecution. This is what Garzón has rejected last week, and you have to say that his reasons are good ones. If, as seems highly probable, there are to be prosecutions of PP members then it simply makes no sense for the party to exercise the role of acusación popular because they would in reality end up acting for the defence. This was a trick played by supporters of the conspiracy theories in the Madrid bombings trial, but was never very likely to succeed in the latest case.

As the PP have turned their fire on Garzón, many observers have taken to recalling how the current situation neatly mirrors the GAL case that was also handled by the same judge in the 1990's. In that situation, as Garzón pursued the issue of whether the PSOE administration led by Felipe Gonzalez ran the group responsible for kidnappings and assassinations in the Basque Country, it was the PP who shouted about the need to let justice take its course whilst the PSOE claimed that the judge was inspired purely by more personal and political motives.

Although the Madrid PP is clearly involved in the scandal, it looks as if it could be equally or more damaging in another region where the party has established its hegemony; Valencia. After all this talk of bad apples it seems that it could be another fruit that causes the problem in the barrel. By all accounts the relationship between one of the principal accused and the leadership of the PP in Valencia has been a very close one, with the oddly named company Orange Market having been on the receiving end of some very lucrative contracts from the regional government. Despite that fact that their bids always seemed to be significantly more expensive than the others that were submitted.

Meanwhile over at conspiracy theory central they have decided that the real game plan here is to prevent the return of the Messiah. Aznar is said to be the real target so that he cannot return to rescue the nation from the ZetaP/Rajoy/nazionalista axis of evil. With Aznar, Aguirre and Francisco Camps all tarnished by the scandal, and with Rajoy in danger of being unseated if the Galician elections go wrong there is one prominent PP figure who remains silent and waits patiently for his moment to come. The Pharaoh has turned into the Sphinx. I think it might be time for an update on Proyecto Rio!

Monday, February 16, 2009

There Are Some Things Evolution Can't Explain

Forges hits the mark yet again in today's El País.

Round Up The Usual Suspects

It's not an easy life in the modern police force I can tell you. There are quotas to be fulfilled. Now don't get the wrong idea, these are not quotas for catching criminals, that's far too complicated and time consuming. Instead, Madrid police units have been given quotas for rounding up illegal immigrants. This maybe helps to explain a mysterious raid on the discotheque Heaven the other week. Despite much talk of drugs being found, it turned out that the principal achievement of the raid was to find a significant number of people without legal documentation. Because they've filled up the internment centres the instruction has gone out to concentrate on Moroccans on the grounds that they can be returned to their native country more rapidly. Despite the overcrowding the government is continuing with its plan to extend the maximum length of time immigrants can be held in these detention centres. Meanwhile, over 20 people attempting to reach Spanish soil died yesterday on a boat just off the coast of Lanzarote. It's not known yet whose quota the 6 survivors will fill.

A Royal Whitewash

Taking advantage of a quiet weekend here in Germany I’ve made good use of Spanish television’s web page and watched the programmes they showed last week about the failed military coup on the 23rd February 1981 – normally referred to in Spain simply as 23-F. They produced a two part drama on these events, entitled “23-F El día más dificil del Rey”, which portrays the sequence of events almost entirely from within the royal household. The version offered by this drama is of a king battling to regain control of the situation in the name of the constitution and democracy. In the meantime we get treated to tender domestic scenes in which almost the only thing lacking is Juan Carlos rolling up his sleeves and doing the washing up whilst barking orders on which general should be phoned next.

The drama is of course largely fiction created within a structure of real events. We don’t really know what went on inside the royal household on that long night when armed civil guards took the whole Spanish parliament hostage. I have always thought that the king took a long time to make up his mind about where he stood, although the version we were offered last week has no such doubts about his commitment to the cause of freedom. Whatever the truth is, it seems clear he made bad choices of associates as one of the people behind the coup was a long standing friend of the monarch. Taking the interpretation of events with a pinch of salt, the programme still manages to put across some feeling of the tension as the success of the coup attempt depended on whether the troops based near Madrid would leave their barracks or not.

The real problem is that it shows the royal family as almost being the main victims of the attempted takeover, including some amazingly sympathetic references to Sofia’s brother Constantine whose commitment to democracy has never been doubted; he didn’t like it. Had the coup succeeded the worst that would have happened to the Bourbon family is that they would have been shipped off to a gilded exile. We are not offered any insights into how the rest of the population put up with the tension of realizing that they could be about to lurch back into another dictatorship. Imagine the feelings of those who saw the tanks rolling down the streets of Valencia. For many Spaniards the outcome would have been much harsher; quite possibly similar to the events that occurred a few years before in Chile.

If you just want a more straightforward account of events then I recommend the reshown Informe Semanal documentary which was made in the immediate aftermath of the coup’s failure. This includes great footage from inside the parliament itself and gives a much broader picture of what was going on. There is a priceless interview with Manuel Fraga who apparently showed a defiant attitude towards his captors; once it became clear that the coup was going to fail!

Sunday, February 15, 2009


How about this for a view when you wake up in the morning?

This is Cotopaxi, a 5897 metre high volcano located a couple of hours drive from Quito in what is known as the Avenida de los Volcanes. To get there you need to head for the town of Machachi on the Panamerican highway and then leave the main road behind to get to the Cotopaxi National Park. Because of the weather conditions described below, it's not really a good option as a day trip unless you leave Quito very early. There are several hotels in the area and you stay in some very impressive and pleasant surroundings. Apart from the volcano itself it's a perfect area for mountain biking or horse riding.

You can climb all the way to the summit of the (currently inactive) volcano, if you feel you need to. Generally what people do is go up to the refuge below the peak and do the rest of the ascent during the night so that they get to the peak for first light.

This is because the mountain is usually clear in the morning, and then covered by the clouds later in the day. It means losing a night's sleep and it's not cheap to do - we were quoted prices of close to $200 per person. Because the upper part of the volcano is snow covered, the ascent has to be done with a guide and proper equipment including crampons, ropes and helmets.

We opted instead for plan B, which consisted of walking up from the car park down beneath the refuge to the foot of the glacier covering the higher parts of the mountain. At $25 dollars a head it was a lot cheaper and still takes you up to a height of around 5000 metres. The views from around the refuge are superb.

We stayed at the sister hostel of our accommodation in Quito, but the Secret Garden Cotopaxi has little in common with its noisy equivalent in the capital. Nestling into the foot of the hills a few miles away from the volcano itself this is an incredibly peaceful place.

At 3500 metres don't expect it to be warm all the time, although the daytime temperature is not too bad and can even feel hot when the sun is out. Bring plenty of warm clothing for the nights and obviously for being on the volcano. You probably should have something for the rain too, the weather can change quickly around here.

We were there at New Year which meant that we got to participate in the popular Ecuadorian tradition of burning your neighbour! They don't explain it this way of course, the intention behind burning an effigy at this time of year is supposedly to symbolically rid yourself of anything that you prefer to put behind you as you begin another year. That's the theory, but the effigy being burnt here still represented one of the neighbours.

Talking to a taxi driver down in Machachi the next day we found out that her effigy had also been a neighbour. I'm surprised the custom has never taken off in Madrid, where loathing your neighbours seems to be such an entrenched part of the culture. The nearby villages also organise fiestas around New Year, and Ecuador is a bull fighting country. You can't have a bull fight without a band, and what looks suspiciously to me like an effigy of someone’s neighbour!

Here the locals test themselves against the local beef.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


I finally got round to seeing Camino, the film that took most of the major honours in this year's Goyas ceremony. Directed by Javier Fesser, the film is inspired by, but not directly based on, real events - the death of a 14 year girl from a family belonging to Opus Dei in the 1980's and the subsequent moves to have her canonised. Camino is the name of the lead character (played by Nerea Camacho), a young girl who falls terribly ill, and whose last agonising weeks become the plaything of the religious sect to which her mother belongs. The story of Camino’s illness and death is presented as an imaginative mixture of hard reality with dream sequences normally taking place during the several surgical operations which she has to undergo.

Her mother (Carmen Elías) is a religious fundamentalist if ever there was one, content to hand over her children to the sect - Camino's elder sister has already been isolated from normal society by being sent to an Opus Dei community. Together with other members, she becomes convinced of her daughter’s devotion to Jesus and that her illness and imminent death is a privilege resulting from such devout faith. A more reasonable question might be to ask what kind of God allows someone to die in such a horrible way, but here death is converted into something glorious; of course by those who are not about to suffer it themselves. It struck me as being the Christian equivalent of a human sacrifice.

It soon becomes clear that the only person called Jesus who really interests Camino works some of the time at the local cake shop and is the cousin of one of her school friends. Her illness strikes just as she hopes to join a theatre group preparing a performance of Cinderella, Jesus plays the prince. Equally, the father to which she is most devoted is her real one (played by Mariano Venancio), whose attempts to put the happiness of his daughters above their religious sacrifice mean that he is treated with suspicion by the sect. It’s a film that deserves the recognition it has received and following its success in the Goyas it has now been reissued, so if you haven't seen it yet it should still be showing at least in the major cities.

Both the unsuccessful Spanish candidate for the Oscars, Los Girasoles Ciegos, and the disappointing Oxford Murders were virtually ignored when it came to handing out the prizes at the Goyas. Nor was there much joy for Solo Quiero Caminar, a fitting reward for what I found to be a particularly cold and joyless piece of cinema. It's been another generally poor year for Spanish cinema, with honourable exceptions like Camino; there have barely been enough quality films to make up the numbers for the award ceremonies.

Finally, there was no place in the Goyas for the Comunidad de Madrid's venture into film financing. Madrid's regional government normally has a cinema support fund of, er, 0 but last year that increased to a whopping 15 million euros all for one film. Sangre de Mayo was commissioned as part of Esperanza Aguirre's patriotic celebration of the 2 de Mayo bicentenary but the public remained unimpressed by the film and the last I heard it had only recovered €750,000 of the initial investment. Now whenever actors get involved in political issues in Spain there is normally a predictable outburst from the "liberal/conservative" axis that they should remove all subsidies from Spanish cinema. The same people have been a little bit quieter on Sangre de Mayo.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hunting For An Alibi

The corruption case brought by judge Baltasar Garzón against various people either inside or close to the Partido Popular continues to advance with three of the accused already in prison and a long list of others set to declare in the next few weeks. We now know that the list of accused includes both the former mayor of Boadilla del Monte (who finally resigned his position under huge PP pressure) and also the former mayor of Majadahonda who also "resigned" from his refuge with the Comunidad de Madrid the other day. The investigation is by no means over, and there are strong indications that others will be accused. Alberto López Viejo, the member of Esperanza Aguirre's administration who was also very quickly removed the other day, is suspected of involvement with the principal figures involved. However, he has immunity as a member of the regional assembly and Garzón would have to surrender the case to a different court in order to accuse him.

Yesterday, on the day they were holding their emergency meeting to deal with the crisis, the PP grabbed at a chance to portray everything as an evil plot by the government after El Mundo revealed that Baltasar Garzón and Justice minister Mariano Bermejo had coincided on a hunting trip last weekend. Unfortunately for the PP, it was later revealed that the man organising the day's hunting was also a party member; deflating fairly quickly the idea that Garzón and Bermejo had set it all up so that they could kill animals and plot the downfall of the PP at the same time. You could argue that hunting down members of the PP is both easier to justify ethically, and probably more enjoyable from a sporting point of view, than decimating the harmless wildlife of Andalucia. Each to their own.

Despite this setback, the PP is trying to come out fighting and has declared that they will no longer cooperate with the government on justice issues while Bermejo remains in his post. The net effect of this measure will be zero, it will just prolong indefinitely the already long overdue renovation of the Constitutional Court. They have also challenged Garzón as the judge to handle the case, arguing that his animosity towards the party means that he should be removed. For all the attempts to present the PP as victims of a political vendetta, when Esperanza Aguirre sacks people because of their potential involvement in legal difficulties then you just know something is going on. It would be nice to think she acted in the interests of integrity and transparency but no drug strong enough to make me believe that has yet been invented.

Reports of the PP's meeting suggest that it was not quite the display of unity that leader Mariano Rajoy wanted. There were complaints about Madrid's problems affecting the party as a whole, whilst Jose Maria Aznar's wife, Ana Botella, whined that the PP was not doing enough to preserve the sacred memory of her husband's administration. She has reasons to be worried, some of the accused have been business associates of her daughter's husband Alejandro Agag, and the high point of their influence was during Aznar's time in office. It will take more than a bogus commission of investigation to kill this one.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

At The Cost Of The Coast

If this report from El Mundo is anything to go by, Spain's construction boom could be in for a hard time in front of the European Parliament. Too late, of course. However, they have brushed aside attempts by the PSOE and PP to dilute the conclusions of a report that is going to go before the Parliament. According to the report in El Mundo one of the recommendations will be that European funding should be linked to good practice in construction. That would hurt if it ever happened. Meanwhile last week saw reports of a change in the Ley de Costas, the law introduced with the intention of controlling development on Spain's coastline. What makes the proposed change curious is that it is being implemented as part of legislation on an entirely different matter concerning maritime navigation. This appears to have been done to avoid attracting attention towards a modification of the law with serious consequences.

The law was originally introduced in 1988, but for most of its life it has been ignored. Before it could be applied in any realistic sense the task of delineating the public domain parts of the coastline had to be carried out. This is a highly sensitive job as it is the basis for determining where new building can be permitted, and which existing buildings are now covered by the restrictions of the law. Work on this job has only really taken off since 2004, and quite significant progress was made in the first term of Zapatero's government. The result of this has been that many property owners have found that their homes by the coast fall inside what is now regarded as the public domain. The current law prevents these homes from being sold, and they are occupied by the owners under a concession from the Spanish state with the intention that they will eventually be demolished.

However, now the government seems to be proposing that owners of homes built before 1988 will be allowed to sell their properties, something which will greatly appreciated by those who bought homes by the beach without knowing that a law would ever be introduced, but which in the process destroys the efforts to recover for public use areas that should never have been constructed in the first place. It looks as if the government has lost its appetite for the task. The Ley de Costas, imperfect and mistreated though it may be, is in the end the only legal obstacle that can prevent end to end concreting of the Spanish coastline.

It's not just the Ley de Costas which is an issue affecting illegal construction. The worst thing of all is a system which allows thousands of illegal dwellings to be constructed and sold to people who are under the impression for the most part that the property they are buying is legal. In the case of Marbella alone in more recent years, we are talking about tens of thousands of homes that have been constructed illegally. The most likely outcome in these cases is that almost all of these homes will be legalised in return for the constructors providing the municipality with a bit of their excess land. This is a solution that is obviously satisfactory for the owners of the properties, but which effectively ends up rewarding the companies who built the illegal homes in the first place for their bad behaviour.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Campaign In Galicia And See The World

You do a lot of travelling if you want to be president of the regional government of Galicia, the election is coming up on March 1st. Both candidates from the two big parties have already taken their campaign to Buenos Aires, home of a substantial part of the Galician diaspora. Not for nothing is Gallego the generic term for a Spaniard in that part of the world. Around 13% of the potential voters in the election live overseas and with the polls predicting a tight result it's not surprising that so much effort is being made to woo the emigrants.The other day Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy was searching for Galician voters in Switzerland, or maybe it's just that he wanted a break from his own party's mounting problems with the law.

One of the PP´s main candidates in Galicia showed his own special commitment to internationalism by receiving payments via the Cayman Islands for services rendered. He then "forgot" to declare the 240,000 euros received to the Spanish tax authorities, an oversight which has now cost him his position in the party's lists. The most amusing thing about his reaction was the way in which he attempted to pretend that it could have happened to anyone - as if we are all possessors of offshore bank accounts in tax havens.

The transgressor was defended by Manuel Fraga, whose image is apparently used to attract voters in Argentina in preference to the actual candidate, the considerably less famous Alberto Nuñez Feijóo. I've noticed the press are playing quite an entertaining game with Don Manuel these days. Taking advantage of his willingness to mouth outrageous opinions about anything, they have taken to asking him how he would have dealt with a given problem in the old days, when a certain general was still in charge. This produces the desired headline grabbing result which goes something along the lines of "In my day we didn't stand for this sort of thing, once we'd skinned the body, we'd then put the head on a spike to warn the rest and then go off hunting".

Monday, February 09, 2009

Your Next Corruption Scandal Will Be Along In A Minute

Like London buses, scandals involving the Partido Popular seem to come in pairs. Hot on the heels of the still (deliberately) unresolved Aguirregate we get a whole new case involving accusations of companies well connected to the PP having used influence peddling and bribery to improve on and profit from those connections. The case is still in its early stages and many of those said to be involved have yet to be named or be brought before the judge - Baltasar Garzón. Nevertheless there have already been arrests, and the case is provoking commotion inside the PP with the first "resignations" having already occurred.

The main figure arrested in connection with the latest case, Francisco Correa, has not been anywhere near as marginal to PP affairs as the party would have us believe. Most of the photos of Correa that appear in the press show him dressed for a special occasion. That occasion was none other than the wedding of Jose Maria Aznar's daughter Ana, a very grand affair staged at El Escorial as Ana's father temporarily confused himself with Felipe II. Correa was not just there as any old guest either, he was one of the witnesses. He was a key figure in organising events for the PP under Aznar, a position he has obviously used to the full. When Mariano Rajoy took over, the relationship between Correa and the national party was abruptly ended. I think it would help the police with their enquiries if we were told why that happened. The accused have not been left idle by that decision and have continued to work very profitably for other PP controlled administrations, most notably Valencia and of course Madrid.

One of the political figures most touched by the emerging scandal is the mayor of the Madrid municipality of Boadilla del Monte, Arturo González Panero. He is alleged to have accumulated assets which go well beyond the means of even the best paid mayors. He also clearly has political enemies inside the Madrid PP, although if there is anyone in that formation that can't lay claim to having at least one enemy in the party then that means they just don't count. He was reported earlier today as having resigned under the pressure of press reports on the scandal, but apparently retracted on discovering from Judge Garzón that he is not yet on the list of the accused. Where exactly does his alleged resignation leave the claim yesterday by the national PP leadership that the whole affair is just an evil plot by the government? Indeed, why has the PP announced an internal enquiry if there is nothing to the story? I guess that having cancelled the last one they have a crack team of investigators who are sitting around twiddling their thumbs.

Clearly González Panero is not amongst the chosen few in the Madrid PP and it appears the whole investigation was sparked over a year ago by PP members who were nervous about his activities. A couple of others named in reports on the scandal have been invited this evening by Esperanza Aguirre to abandon their posts in her administration. That tells you something about what is going on, if Aguirre feels the need to react then it is because she realises that this is a situation she cannot bluff her way through with yet another bogus commission of investigation. The case focuses too much attention on the way in which the PP and construction interests have worked hand in hand both in Madrid and on the Mediterranean.

An irrelevant but entertaining aside comes from the names of the companies involved in the scandal. Most have odd sounding names in English, a sure sign that their founders are residents of Pijolandia. Nevertheless it`s hard to argue with the name of "Easy Concept" for a company involved in a political corruption case. As an alternative, "Good and Better" also suggests that those behind what has happened had an eternally optimistic outlook on the future for their business.

Friday, February 06, 2009


It's time to kick off my mini series based on my trip to Ecuador in January. When you start a journey like this in the capital of the country, you are never quite sure whether it will be a place to get out of as soon as possible, or somewhere where you can take some time to acclimatise to a new country and just to the idea of being on holiday. In the case of Quito it was the latter, just as well given that the city is located at an altitude of 2850 metres - you need to take things easy at this height. Take care too with the sun at this altitude and in a location just a bit south of the Equator, it may not feel very hot but it can burn quickly.

From the balcony of our hostel we could look over the old historic centre of Quito, but it was hard to imagine the small city this must have been not so long ago. Like so many other South American cities, Quito has experienced explosive growth in the last few decades and the city has spread along hillsides and in all directions from the original nucleus built by the Spanish.

The old centre is said to have improved in recent years, it once had a reputation as an unsafe area. This doesn't seem to be the case now, we walked through it by day and after dark and experienced no problems. Whilst not having the splendour of some of Mexico's towns, for example, the centre of Quito is still a largely well preserved district and has some beautiful buildings dating back as far as the Spanish arrival in the region.

A problem with this part of town is that it lacks life in the evenings once the shops have closed. Many of the restaurants in the area close around 6 or 7 in the evening. The main exception to this is a street which has obviously been fairly recently renovated - La Ronda. On the edge of the old city this street is full of bars and restaurants, but its location means that you might not find it by accident. There are some other exceptions to the rule in the rest of the old town, both at the higher and lower price extremes, but La Ronda gives you a more concentrated set of choices.

There on a Sunday, it was a pleasant surprise to see that traffic stopped in almost all of the city centre. We managed to walk from the historic centre, passing through parks and streets open only to cyclists and pedestrians, all the way to the newer part of the city known as Mariscal Sucre. Why can't they do this in Madrid was the question I found myself asking, the atmosphere was completely relaxed as residents and visitors could recover for a day the use of the city streets from incessant traffic.

Quito is surrounded by high volcanic peaks. As our first step towards acclimatisation for tougher walks to come, we hired a guide to take us to the Guagua Pichincha volcano. Although it's not far from the city you need to drive some distance to get round to the side from where it's possible to reach the summit. I found it tough going, we only walked up a few hundred metres to the top, starting some way below the refuge - but the peak is at 4784 metres and if you suffer from problems with the altitude you might find it too much. We didn't get very good visibility on the day we went, the best views seem to be in the morning and then the clouds move in during the rest of the day.

Down to the left side of here was the crater, we couldn't see much of it but there was a whiff of sulphur in the air to remind us that this is still an active volcano.

As an easier alternative inside Quito itself there is always the Parque Itchimbia, which offers great views over the city. It is also the location of an old covered market that has been converted into a cultural centre.

The hostel we stayed at, The Secret Garden, is on a hill just outside the centre and below Itchimbia. It's a great place to stay if you want to hang around Quito for a few days doing nothing in particular. It's a bad place to stay if you are one of those who go to bed early with the idea of doing things the next day - the open design of the building together with the party atmosphere on the terrace will make it very hard for you to sleep well.

Getting around the centre of the city is easy, you can do most of it on foot. If you're feeling lazy taxis are cheap although you have to negotiate your price in advance; from the airport to our hostel was only $10.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Is It Just Me, Or Is That Flag Watching Us?

An adaptation of the flag of the Comunidad de Madrid, as portrayed by Forges in El País.

There's no spying here - move along please.

Some People Are Hungrier Than Others

Do you remember the sad case of Fernando Martin, briefly president of Real Madrid, and also architect of one of the biggest corporate bankruptcies Spain has seen? Well it wasn't just his company, Martinsa Fadesa, who filed for protection from their creditors. Martin himself decided it was the best solution to his financial problems as he had only earned a paltry 85 million euros the year before.

Still, at least the administrator handling his case has taken into account Martin's basic necessities. It seems he has been awarded a salary of 75,000 euros to cover his food costs. Oh sorry, did I almost forget to mention, that's €75,000 a month. Probably enough to feed the almost 80% of his workforce who have been made redundant since the company collapsed, they are believed to to be getting by on a little bit less.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

As If Things Weren't Bad Enough

Unemployment in Spain has now increased by around a million people in the last 12 months, with a horrifying increase of around 200,000 in January alone. Over at the Partido Popular, where they are still struggling to concentrate on anything except their own internal problems, they have shown an inventive approach to graphical representation of the issue. Take a look at the photo below, where the PP's parliamentary leader - Soraya Saénz de Santamaria - rails against the government over the number of unemployed.

Now unemployment may have increased by almost 50% in a year but looking at Soraya's chart you would imagine that the increase was nearer 300%. Saénz de Santamaria is employing a technique that the PP pioneered during the televised debates between Zapatero and Rajoy in last year's election campaign. Even if the difference between two figures is quite small, the idea is to exaggerate it enormously so that the visual effect suggests a much greater effect. It didn't work very well during the election campaign, mostly because of Rajoy's unique presentational style.

Life In The Third World

There is a tendency in Spain when something seems to have been handled badly to exaggerate the prowess of other countries in handling the same set of circumstances. This tendency has been on frequent display recently as an unusually harsh winter has occasionally caused transport chaos. The response is a lament about Spain's "third world" inability to cope compared to other supposedly more advanced European countries. Last Sunday, as the Madrid region endured another day of snow, we saw this attitude emerging again as some of the main roads entering the city were cut by the snow for a couple of hours.

Well this week is seeing a bit of a backlash against this attitude as both Britain and France struggled to keep their airports open and motorists were trapped in the snow. In reality, Spain copes a bit better than some other countries with icy weather, not least because parts of the country gets more of it than most of Britain or France does. The idea of mountain passes being closed to all but those who have fixed chains to the wheels of their cars is not uncommon here in winter. The main problem is that people seem to expect to be able to go anywhere in any weather these days, and even the best prepared city can't prevent some disruption if there is a heavy snowfall - short of having thousands of people equipped with snow clearing machinery on permanent alert.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Aguirregate....The Damage Limitation Begins

Esperanza Aguirre has got what she wanted, the suspension of the internal Partido Popular enquiry into the allegations of political espionage organised from within her administration in Madrid. In return she has had to concede to a commission of investigation, something which sounds far more threatening to her position than it will actually be. The party responsible for the espionage will control the commission and you can almost guarantee that the conclusions will focus on anything and everything except the activities of those under Aguirre's control. It's worth remembering the last occasion when the Comunidad de Madrid set up such a body. The commission investigating the murky and still unclarified events leading to Aguirre's assumption of power in Madrid came to the unsurprising conclusion that there was nothing at all that needed investigating. That commission was presided over by Francisco Granados, the man at the heart of the current espionage scandal. Granados was not an important figure in the Madrid PP until he performed that role, ensuring the non-investigation of the "Tamayazo" smoothed the way for him to become one of the key figures in La Lideresa's government.

One of Aguirre's great political failings is that she is seemingly indifferent to the collateral damage her political battles cause, a factor that accounts for her increasing unpopularity with other sections of her own party. The local PP in Galicia and the Basque Country are watching in despair less than a month before the elections in these regions. Not only is the infighting in Madrid completely overshadowing their campaigns, the evidence of the opinion polls also shows a party that is failing to capitalise on the difficulties facing the government. PP leader Mariano Rajoy knows that a poor result in the upcoming elections could damage him - perhaps even lose him his job - and so he also has a keen interest in not permitting Aguirregate to continue to grab the headlines. The PP's own investigation could have been used to hurt Aguirre and she knew it; that's why her media allies have been so busy attempting to implicate the national party in the affair.

The attempts by Aguirre to fight back have had another undesirable (from her point of view) side effect. By trying to claim that her vice president Ignacio Gonzalez is the only genuine victim of the spying, the Aguirre supporters have inadvertently managed to focus too much attention on Gonzalez. Someone, quite possibly in the national PP, has found it necessary at some point to commission a very extensive report on the activities of Gonzalez, and specifically on the use of his powerful position to favour friends and family. The account of just how far this process has gone in Madrid is really worth reading. It's no wonder that they want to privatize the Canal Isabel II water company, having placed so many of their nearest and dearest in key positions it's not hard to imagine who would be the main beneficiaries of the process. Aguirre, Gonzalez and Granados have all emerged damaged by the fallout, agreement to a bogus investigation is their only escape route after the failure of their initial response when they tried to pretend it was all a setup by El País. Over at that newspaper they are still waiting for the Madrid PP to act on their threats of legal action.

Will this be the end of it? Not quite, in the first place because this whole affair has only been a single battle in a larger underlying war. The scars it leaves behind ensure that the next battle may be all the more bitter. Given all the information that has floated to the surface of a very mucky pond in the last few weeks, there is enough material to keep a diligent prosecutor busy for quite a while. The only doubt is whether the case ever reaches the hands of such a person. Perhaps the commission of investigation will be shown live on Telemadrid, as its predecessor was - it boosted the dismal viewing figures of that channel by quite a margin. However, that was in the days before Telemadrid underwent the process of Aguirrefication.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Hard Times For The Press

Evidence that the economic crisis is also starting to severely affect the Spanish media is coming in thick and fast. Some publishers here seized quickly on the news of Sarkozy's proposed media assistance plan in France to suggest that the Spanish government could do the same. They ignore the indications that Sarkozy's help comes with strings attached, particularly for the issue of press freedom. Meanwhile the sector hardest hit so far by the fall in advertising revenues, the free press, is making drastic cutbacks or even quitting the Spanish market - the company owning Metro has announced the closure of its edition in Spain., one of the more innovative digital news experiments, is also about to be closed down as its owners abandon the idea of separate teams for paper and digital content.

Spain's biggest selling newspaper, El País, has announced restructuring plans that left it facing the possibility of further industrial action, after an initial one day stoppage last month. One of the most senior figures in the paper's parent company Grupo Prisa, Juan Luis Cebrián, more or less announced the end of the traditional printed newspaper model a couple of weeks ago. From now on they want a new model of company that produces content for paper, the internet and mobile devices. Although reports of the imminent demise of the printed newspaper have been exaggerated, the crisis combined with the shift of advertising to the internet is hitting profits badly for all of the traditional printed media. Prisa's problems have been exacerbated by their inability so far to find a suitable buyer for their digital television platform.

Meanwhile the newest paper on the media scene in Spain, Público, has replaced founding editor Ignacio Escolar with another El País veteran - Felix Monteira. The announcement caused some alarm amongst readers of the paper, there are fears that the change means a move towards more accommodating editorial positions. Some even suggested a conspiracy to remove Escolar because of the paper's uncompromising stance on the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Escolar himself, as one of the principal Spanish political bloggers, used his blog as a platform for answering questions from readers about events at the paper. He turned down an offer to continue as head of the paper's internet division, but will continue to write for Público. Having been a key figure in the founding of what will probably be the last new printed newspaper to emerge in Spain, it will be interesting to see what his next project will be - he's still only 33.

The new paper has demonstrated that there was a gap in the market, but despite establishing a faithful base of readers it is still not making money and the effects of the crisis mean that increasing sales is a priority. The owners of Público, Mediapro, are also key participants in the "guerra del futbol", which has seen them go head to head with Prisa over the rights to show live football. What they are looking for is for the government to authorise pay channels on the digital TDT devices - and they already have a dedicated football channel created in anticipation of this. The closeness of Mediapro's owners to Zapatero's administration has already led to a distinct cooling of the PSOE-Prisa relationship. Such tough competition at a time of crisis can only up the pressure to change the way in which the media has been run.