Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Piece Of The Copa Del Rey For Everyone

Real Madrid's victory over Barcelona in last night's Copa del Rey final has almost been eclipsed by the manner in which Sergio Ramos chose to celebrate the victory; dropping the cup under the wheels of the team bus. It's a fairly safe bet that he doesn't get asked to wash the champagne glasses when he's at home. We assume that the country's top trophy repair experts were awakened in the early hours of this morning.

Madrid won the game, but they didn't do it in a way that puts their style of play on a par with Barça's. A scrappy, bad-tempered first half was the result of Madrid playing to disrupt the natural style of their opponents. All of which is quite legitimate, but the story it tells is that of a team which does not regard itself as the equal of Barcelona. The important thing for Mourinho's team in the last few days has been to shake off the trauma of that 5-0 hammering in the Camp Nou earlier in the season. The second half saw Barça dominating but without managing to find a way past a Madrid team that was by now playing to win the game on a break or on penalties. At least the game was decided in open play. The only goal that hasn't come from the penalty spot in the 210 minutes of play between the two teams over the last few days.

It's strange this year to see so much attention focused on the cup, normally it's regarded by Spain's big two as a minor distraction from the the hunt for more significant trophies. With the league almost certain to be won by Barcelona it could still be the only title that Real Madrid win this season. The second wave of meetings between the two teams comes with the Champions League semi-finals where a defeat for either team will certainly be regarded as a failure. Madrid's cup, or what remains of it, will be viewed as meaningless by their supporters if Barça put them out of the Champions League. Mourinho, who is clearly not happy in Madrid, will need something more to show than the Copa del Rey if he's thinking of walking away bragging of another successful project. Barça fans will be equally upset if Mourinho foils their Champions League hopes for a second consecutive season.

It's more than a bit dreary the way in which the games between the same two teams are dominating the season, it's the principal reason why I'm not interested in blogging much about Spanish football any more. Scotland on the Med is becoming more and more the name of the game here. Almost completely overshadowed by the massive coverage of the ill-named "clásicos" was the news yesterday of the likely buy out of Getafe by investors from Dubai. We are starting to see in Spain a similar model to that which is happening in the UK where wealthy sugar daddies take over a club which they evidently have little interest in other than as a platform for their business or personal interests. The problem is that the current economic model of top flight football means that the vast majority of clubs are doomed to be in permanent financial crisis. The fans may be excited when they get a flashy new owner who pays off some of the debt and maybe buys a star or two. But then when that owner loses interest in his new toy...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Will It Be Gürtel That Brings Garzón Down?

Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón has been suspended from his position today by Spain's governing judicial body, the Consejo General del Poder Judicial (CGPJ). I know what some of you are thinking, that you've read this somewhere before. Well even though it already happened once in May last year, he's been suspended again today as part of the continuing campaign against him by members of the Spanish Supreme Court.

This time the suspension is related to the Gürtel corruption case. One of the three separate cases against Garzón accuses him of acting illegally by ordering recording of the conversations between the main organisers of the Gürtel ring and their lawyers. Some, but not all, of these recordings have already been ruled illegal by a Madrid court; but the Supreme Court case is aimed at Garzón as the original investigating magistrate dealing with the case. The suspension is supposed to happen once the case reaches the point where a trial can be held.

The accusation in this case is following an already familiar pattern. All attempts by Garzón to call witnesses in his defence that back his legal interpretation have been systematically denied by the Supreme Court's judges. This has happened in the case against him for investigating Francoist crimes, and also in the other case involving payments for his sabbatical in New York which are alleged to have led him to act in favour of the interests of the Banco Santander. So the fact that the judge currently dealing with the Gürtel case, the state prosecutors, and one of the three judges who heard the Madrid case on the recordings, all agree that no crime was committed is not going to be allowed to influence the determination of the Supreme Court to put Garzón in the dock for this case too.

Let's rewind a bit and note that almost a year has passed now since the original decision to suspend Garzón over the Franco case. That frenzy of activity which occurred when Garzón applied for a transfer to the International Criminal Court has long died away following the original suspension and there is still no date set for a trial which was, in principle, ready to happen any day. There is a theory concerning the management by the Supreme Court of the cases against Garzón. It could be called a conspiracy theory, but the way events are shaping up it's worth taking seriously.

The argument is that the Supremo will try to take Garzón down using the Gürtel recordings case. They may have been ready with the Civil War case for almost a year but it places the court in a difficult position. The persecution of Garzón for investigating crimes which are covered by treaties which Spain has signed has attracted significant international attention. Even though it's probably this issue more than anything else which has motivated the "get Garzón" campaign, taking it to trial will leave Spanish justice with a dreadful image problem. Meanwhile the case concerning the Banco Santander is floundering badly, the investigating judge has only managed to keep it alive by turning it into a generic fishing exercise to see if he can find anything at all irregular in Garzón's earnings.

The case concerning Gürtel may offer the judges an easier route to get their man. With a court having already ruled out some of the recordings, they can try Garzón for having breached the principle of confidentiality between the accused and their lawyers without justification. Of course to do this they have to ignore all conflicting opinions and the evidence of involvement against some of the lawyers in laundering the proceeds of the the Gürtel ring. The key part of the theory is this: having obtained one conviction against Garzón, the judge loses his position and the protection this affords. The other cases then get shunted off to a lower court where they can be allowed to wither indefinitely in the department of forgotten prosecutions. Without, of course, ever being withdrawn. No recognition of judicial error will come from the Supreme Court.

It's just a theory at the moment, but the fact that the Gürtel prosecution seems to be the only one moving forward gives it some credence. Another side effect of such a development is that the Partido Popular will of course be delighted by a sentence that they can use to try and discredit a corruption case which continues to threaten prominent figures in the party. One of the great paradoxes of Gürtel has been that so far the only legal consequences have been formal prosecution of the investigating judge and a PSOE politician threatened with a prison sentence for raising a confidential police report in the Valencian parliament which had already been published in the press! The latter has already been acquitted, but the way things are going I wouldn't put much money at the moment on Garzón being so lucky.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Keeping Madrid's Atheists Off The Streets

A modest proposal by a trio of civic associations to hold an atheist procession in Madrid during Easter week has, perhaps not surprisingly, provoked a hugely over the top reaction. First off the mark was Madrid's ayuntamiento which called for the procession to be banned as a "provocation". Completely different, you understand, from a bunch of intimidating looking Catholics marching around all day dressed up as the Klan. Anyway, Madrid's rulers got their way as the national government's representative in the capital banned the event.

This ban, also not surprisingly, was not enough for some of the small but very vocal Christo-fascist organisations that yearn for the good old days when heretics were dealt with in a more summary fashion. Hazteoir submitted a judicial complaint accusing the atheists of genocide, whilst the christian lawyers association was keen not to be outdone and lodged an accusation of praising terrorism. I'm not inventing any of this and you have to remember at this point that Madrid's rulers called for the ban to be imposed in the name of "tolerance". I'll repeat that because I'm sure someone will think I missed some letters from the beginning of the word. "Tolerance".

Now in a sane judicial system Hazteoir and the christian lawyers would be told to organise their own procession taking them back onto the street and down to the nearest bar to drown their sorrows instead of wasting judicial time and money. However, in Spain there is a never ending stream of legal cases brought by ultra right-wing sects and grouplets because there appears to be an equally limitless supply of conservative judges who far prefer this sort of thing to any far fetched notions of dispensing justice to the average citizen. The judge in this case being the same one that happily keeps alive the hopes of those behind the 11-M conspiracy theories.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Honest Candidates Have An Unfair Advantage

With the regional and municipal elections looming, the Partido Popular in Valencia has struck an important blow for equality of treatment. They lodged a complaint with the Junta Electoral, responsible for overseeing the electoral process, because several TV channels had publicised the fact that their lists for the May elections are full of people involved in corruption cases, including the long running Gürtel case. The PP claimed that this shouldn't be allowed. It goes without saying that the regional TV channel under their control would never do such a thing, those who rely solely on this channel for their information may even be unaware that their president could soon be on trial. 

Today, after what seems to have been some pressure from national PP headquarters, the Valencian party has withdrawn their complaint. The lists for the elections contain, depending on what you read, between 9-11 important PP figures who are either directly accused of offences or who are currently under investigation. The decision to pack the lists with so many suspect characters has been seen as a further snub by the Valencian PP to Mariano Rajoy, who they know to be either unwilling or unable to act over such cases. Given that they regard electoral success as being equivalent to absolution, perhaps the only surprise is the accidental inclusion of some candidates who are not yet charged with anything.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Juventud Sin Futuro

As a follow up to my post the other week on the lack of protest by young people in Spain over the future that awaits them, here is a post to show that not everyone is passively accepting the situation. Last week saw the first protest in Madrid organised by a platform called Juventud Sin Futuro. The turnout was nothing like that seen in protests such as the one held in Lisbon a few weekes ago, but it could yet turn out to be the start of something bigger.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Stroll In Palma De Mallorca

I was in Mallorca for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I went for a wedding so I didn't have that much time to take a look at the island and spent the entire weekend in Palma. If you stand with your back to the motorway that runs parallel to the sea and look towards the cathedral it's possible to avoid seeing any of the newer parts of the city.

With a few hours on my own on the Monday before returning to Madrid I couldn't resist the temptation to go and have a look at the building popularly known as "el palacete de Matas". This is the fine old building in the centre of Palma that was purchased by the former president of the Balearics, Jaume Matas; a man who is currently facing what could be described as certain legal difficulties concerning his period in office. It took a bit of work on internet to direct me towards the Carrer Sant Feliu.

It's claimed that Matas paid around a third of the true value of the building in question, and then refurbished it very lavishly but without apparently having to go to the trouble of paying all the bills. The most notable thing about the building, if I identified it correctly, is that the lower part houses offices of the Sindicatura de Comptes. Who are they? Nothing really, just the government agency that is supposed to ensure that public money is properly managed.

Friday, April 08, 2011

ZP, El Pato Cojo

We can't really claim the suspense was killing us, the speculation was all about when Zapatero would make his announcement that he wouldn't stand for re-election, not if he would make it. Things had reached the point where it had really become unsustainable to choose any other option after months of speculation and increasing pressure inside his own party for a decision to be made.

Not that there has ever been much sign of Zapatero intending to try for a third term. It has long been rumoured that he would "do an Aznar" and stand down voluntarily after two terms in office. What has happened is that the choice over the timing has not been as voluntary as he would have liked. Powerful regional figures in the PSOE have been expressing their worry that the appalling poll ratings for the national government would lead the party to disaster in the local and regional elections, where candidates with a good local record might hope to defy the trends of the polls.

The problem now for the PSOE is to keep the lid on any leadership struggle until after the May elections, although any open bidding for power in the meantime is likely to be quickly shot down as being disloyal to the party. Zapatero has made it clear that he favours a primary election to choose the new leader, the same route that he took to the top and a stark contrast with the opposition Partido Popular whose current leader was elected by one person; José Maria Aznar. I always think that the inner workings of a party reveal much about its attitude towards democracy in general (and of course in this case political heritage).

For many the overwhelming favourite as successor is the interior minister, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba. He is seen as a safe pair of hands who might just manage to salvage something for the party in next year's general election. Rubalcaba has a very powerful ally in the newspaper El País, in what would be an attempt by that paper's owners to regain some of the influence they have lost over the government. El País seems able to produce a poll showing extraordinary prospects for Rubalcaba at a moments notice and there is little doubt that some senior PSOE figures would like him to be installed without a contested election. It's strange that a politician who was said to be seeking retirement after the last general election should now be on the verge of becoming leader of the party. It's hard to see him as being anything more than a caretaker leader but you never know.

The main expected rival to the Rubalcaba option is defence minister Carme Chacón, who would represent a younger generation of politicians in the party. Chacón has been seen as Zapatero's favourite as successor after becoming the first woman defence minister, and the fact that she is Catalan would be seen as a nod to an important region in electoral terms. Ironically, she could lead a party that she is not officially a member of, as the Catalan PSC is in principle a separate organisation. We can only imagine for the moment the reaction of the right wing press in Spain to the prospect of a Catalan female becoming prime minister. Heart attacks could be provoked just by the thought of it.

The possibility of other candidates shouldn't be ruled out, after all José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was virtually an unknown outside of his home territory when he stood for election as PSOE leader. Another question is whether there will be behind the scenes negotiations for a Rubalcaba-Chacón "dream ticket", presumably put together with the promise that Rubalcaba would stand down in the event of an election defeat. It's a risky game for Chacón to play, sometimes if you don't stand you lose your chance forever as anyone else can come forward in the future. Don't expect much ideology from either of them, Rubalcaba is a machine politician and Chacón will represent a continuation of Zapaterismo.

The PP has already been clamouring for early elections to be called, although it's still notable that they refuse to present a parliamentary motion of censure. In many ways Rubalcaba has been their main target ever since the reshuffle last year gave him a more prominent role in the general business of the government. They have been chipping away at his generally high approval rating. It's not clear whether Zapatero will stand down after the new leader is elected, or whether he will follow Aznar's lead and stay as prime minister but not as candidate, continuing to take the flak for the economy's weakness. 

Friday, April 01, 2011

Aguirre Calls For Clean, Fair Fight In May Elections

Esperanza Aguirre has struck first blow in the campaign for regional and municipal elections in May by calling on all parties to respect a revolutionary new code of conduct for the campaign. "Voters are sick and tired of politicians abusing their position by using public money and resources to subsidise their own party's campaign" said Aguirre this morning. The measures proposed by the Madrid regional president and lideresa of the Partido Popular include the following:

- an end to bogus inaugurations of unfinished hospitals or other public works where all that currently exists is a hole in the ground and a fence around it.

- no use of fraudulent foundations to conceal electoral expenses from public view. Aguirre has suggested that such practices might lead voters to suspect that favours were given in return for hidden donations from companies working for the administration.

- ending the use of institutional advertising budgets as electoral propaganda by using the money to make unsubstantiated boasts about supposed achievements. 

- a deal on Telemadrid respecting plurality and ending the practice of using the regional television channel to portray all opposition politicians as Nazis or clowns. Nor can the television services offered in Metro stations be used to bombard passengers with images of regional presidents going about their "work". 

Asked if the new code included a ban on employing people on the public payroll to spy on other politicians, Aguirre said that it probably wouldn't because this was just a bit of "harmless fun" and was in any case an internal party matter. Several members of her party are said to have fainted in shock when told of the new proposals. National PP leader Mariano Rajoy wouldn't comment on the new code of conduct, advisers said that he was "thinking about it".