Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rajoy's Andalucian Hangover

They say the champagne was ready to be opened in celebration on Sunday at the headquarters of the Partido Popular. Such was the confidence that they would win Andalucia's regional government with an overall majority. That's what the opinion polls prior to the final week of the campaign had all indicated, and it is said that the private polls in the last few days before voting also carried the same message. This was going to be the jewel in the crown following the conquering of power at national level, Spain's biggest regional government and the last remaining bastion under majority PSOE control. Not only that, but the popular mandate to be gained in Andalucia was going to be used as vindication for the agressive policies of the government - proof that the Spanish understood the need for tough measures.

But it didn't work out. Sure, the PP emerged as the largest party in terms of votes, something they had never achieved before in Andalucia. Barring dramatic events, it's not enough. They are 5 seats short of a governing majority and the PSOE can govern again if they obtain the blessing of Izquierda Unida (IU), who doubled their representation in the Andalucian parliament. When a similar situation occurred in Madrid in 2003, 2 of the PSOE deputies were 'persuaded' not to support their party in the crucial vote but in this case such a solution would be a bit more challenging. Despite the attempts by the PP to spin the result as victory their faces betrayed them and the party at their headquarters never got going. They entered the week of a general strike and what promises to be an extremely tough budget without the trophy they had hoped for.

For once the abstention didn't come from the voters on the left. At least not all of it. The PP lost around 400,000 votes in Andalucia compared to the general election, whilst the PSOE made a timid recovery from November's disaster and some of their former disillusioned supporters turned further to the left and opted for Izquierda Unida. The regional president, José Antonio Griñan, has seen his decision to give Andalucian voters a taste of the PP in office vindicated. Had the election coincided with the general election Griñan would almost certainly have been booted out. Now the question is what sort of agreement Griñan can make with Izquierda Unida. 

IU have already made it clear that they favour keeping the PP out of power. It's very unlikely that there will be a repeat of the situation that occurred in Extremadura last year where relations between the PSOE and the local IU leadership were so bad that the latter permitted the PP to take office. Such a situation is unthinkable now, with a PP national government implementing aggressive right-wing policies. Even so, IU should play hardball over their support, it can't be a case of business as usual. Andalucia has some possibility of demonstrating that alternatives exist to destructive slash and burn economics, and IU should not sell their support cheaply. The option of letting the PSOE govern in minority seeking approval for their measures shouldn't be discarded. 

The Andalucian result has had an important psychological impact. The PP had behaved in recent weeks with incredible arrogance, very much as if they were the "dueños del cortijo". Even though their victory in November was as much a result of rejection of the previous government rather than support for full blooded right-wing policies, the government has behaved as if they have popular support for everything they want to do. Just as they did when Aznar got his majority in 2000. Now things don't look quite so simple, and the honeymoon is over for Rajoy. With Andalucia, and possibly Asturias, in opposition the political panorama changes. 

The result in Asturias has been overshadowed by that of Andalucia, but it is also interesting. The PSOE emerged as the largest party, with the right-wing vote split between the PP and FAC, the formation of the renegade Cascos. The PP came third in the region whilst the decision by Cascos to call another election has not done him much good. Today's count of the emigrant vote has also changed the outcome with the PSOE gaining an extra seat at the expense of FAC. This leaves the PSOE combined with IU on level terms with FAC and the PP. The casting vote could lie with the solitary representative of UPyD who have previously stated they would support the party with the most votes in such a situation. Their principles, such as they are, may yet be put to the test in Asturias.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Regional Election Results For Andalucia And Asturias 2012

I haven't found much time for blogging recently, but at least I can maintain this blog's tradition of posting election results from Spain via the handy widget from El País. Both Asturias and Andalucia are voting today for their regional governments, although the early indications on participation suggest that many people in both regions are not that enthusiastic about casting their vote. The participation figures released earlier today showed Andalucia 10 points down on the previous elections, and Asturias 8. The received wisdom is that low participation favours the right, as their voters are usually less likely to abstain. 

Most of the attention will focus on the Andalucian vote, where the governing PSOE face a serious possibility of losing power after 30 years of uninterrupted control. Affected by the reaction against Zapatero's government, by weariness after so long in power, and by a serious corruption scandal, the PSOE will regard just a failure by the Partido Popular to obtain an overall majority as a major success. The Andalucian vote would have coincided with the national elections if Zapatero hadn't decided to go for an earlier election. 

The PP will obtain a huge boost if they win Andalucia, their candidate Javier Arenas has been a serial loser of elections in this region. It will give them unprecedented power in the country, as they already control a clear majority of the other regions and form part of a governing alliance in others. Apart from anything else the Andalucian election has been the primary reason why we still don't know what cuts the national government intends to implement in order to attempt to meet the crazy deficit reduction target for this year. With the elections out of the way then reality will come rushing up fast behind. 

Asturias is holding elections just 10 months after the previous ones. This is a result of the failure by the former PP secretary general, Francisco Álvarez Cascos, to form a stable government there following his victory in May last year with his breakaway party. Cascos represents everything that is bad about Spanish politics, although it's very unlikely that he will do as well today as he did last year. The region could still be left without a stable government as it is not likely that any single party will win a majority. No further elections are allowed for at least a year if deadlock is the result, and as Asturias is one of those regions that doesn't set its own election date any government that results will have no more than three years in power.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Managing The Deficit

All seems to be calm. Mariano Rajoy announced last week that the Spanish government was relaxing its deficit reduction target for 2012 and....virtually nothing happened. There have been some token noises of disapproval from Brussels but nothing yet which seriously suggests that Rajoy's apparently unilateral move hadn't been quietly agreed with those who are really in control of the Spanish economy. We'll have to wait and see how events develop, but if I was running the show in Brussels and wanted to allow a couple of countries to relax slightly their targets without encouraging everyone else to do the same, then this is probably how it would be done. It even allows Rajoy to pretend to be in charge.

Rajoy's justification for the move was of course the massive overshoot on last year's deficit target. There is understandable suspicion about the 8.5% deficit figure from last year. Much of the responsibility for this lies with the regional governments who, oddly enough, were more or less on target at the end of the third quarter only to veer wildly off it in the final three months of the year. Given that most of these governments are now controlled by the Partido Popular it is suspected that the figures have been manipulated to exaggerate last year's deficit. There are obvious political benefits in doing this. Firstly, it permits the PP to apportion more blame for the deficit onto Zapatero's government whilst at the same time bolstering their case for relaxing this year's target.

Politics is everything with the deficit at the moment. Despite being persistently asked by the EU to present a budget for 2012, the government has managed to defer this until after the Andalucian elections later this month. Then will come the really bad news. If anyone thinks that the pressure is off because of the change to the deficit target then they could not be more wrong. The government still needs to deliver as a minimum another reduction in spending equivalent to that which they already announced at the beginning of the year. These are cutbacks that go way beyond anything that Zapatero's government was required to deliver in order to try and cut the deficit by 2.7% in a single year.

They've changed a completely unattainable target for one that is just simply unlikely. The reason being that once you start making savage cuts to hit a deficit target then the effects of these cuts on tax income and economic activity in general mean that you have to cut even more just to try and hit the same target. This is the full application of what we can call, in a bid to assist future historians investigating the disaster, The Cycle of Stupidity. So in addition to the headline cuts figure to formally meet the reduction target, there will be an extra hit. The total cuts figure in the end could still be close to the €40,000 million that was seen to be necessary to meet the previous deficit target. The overall reduction if last year's budget target had been met would have been less than the one we will still get this year. Even though it's very unlikely to work.

I still see some occasional talk of growth resuming in the last quarter of this year and you have to seriously question the judgement behind this. With the government now accepting the IMF's estimate of a 1.7% decline in the economy, and bearing in mind that these estimates change for the worse every few weeks at the moment, just where is that growth going to come from? It would be nice to think that Rajoy's shift on the budget meant that common sense had finally told, but it seems to be only a tentative step towards dealing with reality. Bear in mind that job losses don't really cease until you get to around 2%+ growth and 6 million unemployed in Spain is now looking inevitable. But not, of course, unavoidable. 

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Romans Go Home

I went to the cinema yesterday and in the toilets I saw a xenophobic piece of graffiti inviting British and American language teachers to go home. The graffiti was notionally in defence of public education but had of course missed the target. It's the Condesa de Murillo who is determined to further lower education standards by seeking to ensure that children are taught in the cheapest possible way in a language that most of them barely understand. To that end she wants to use native teachers as a weapon in her battle with the Spanish teachers. Unfortunately, the second part of the graffiti fatally undermined the case the author was trying to make. It went something like this (in the original English): 

"Stop stealing the Spanish from their jobs" 

 Remind you of anything?

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Respect For The Victims

Next weekend sees the 8th anniversary of the Madrid bombings. In many respects it will be a normal Sunday. Football matches will of course be played, many restaurants will be open, theatres and cinemas too. It's really business as usual, you could argue about whether that's a good or a bad thing - but that's the reality. There will also be the institutional ceremonies to mark the anniversary. And there will be the habitual attempts by sections of the right-wing press and the Partido Popular to use the bombings as a political weapon against their opponents, and if possible to earn a bit of money from it in the process. 

This latter tradition has already begun, with a noisy campaign launched against the decision by Spain's trade unions to hold fresh protests against the government's labour market reform on March 11th. Government ministers and the Delegada del Gobierno in Madrid have claimed that the decision to hold the protests on this day shows a "lack of respect" for the victims. But surely, you'll be thinking, such a fuss is being made because it's not normal for demonstrations with a high political content to be held around the time of the anniversary of the bombings? Ah well, that seems not to be the case. It all depends who is doing the organizing. Did you spot the future prime minister?

All the talk about respecting the victims, coming from these people, is just a bit too much to take after 8 years of fabricated conspiracy theories. The largest association of 11M victims has already publicly disassociated itself from these pathetic attempts to use the victims of the bombings as a battering ram against the trade unions. But for those in the PP who like to claim to speak on behalf of the victims these people simply don't exist. The same victims association refused to swallow any of the conspiranoico nonsense that we have had to put up with for so long, with the result that they were denied public funding by those governing Madrid. 

Perhaps it was their refusal to use such public funds to organise fraudulent demonstrations against Zapatero's government that has always counted against them, as they preferred to use their resources to assist their members. It's as if they don't exist. Alongside all of those victims who still carry shrapnel in their bodies as a reminder of that fateful day in 2004. The conspiracy theorists insist that no shrapnel was used in the bombs that exploded, so that's a another group of victims whose very existence must be denied. With the greatest possible respect, you understand. 

Now I've never been a huge fan of those who have claimed that the Spanish right is somehow different from its European counterparts. Largely because such claims usually involve exaggerating the democratic credentials of the right in other countries to make the point. However, in the case of 11M it is the absolute absence of any kind of ethical baseline that does seem to mark a difference. I'll try to be fair, there are a few (far too few) on the Spanish right who find this repugnant exploitation of 11M to be too much and some have said so. The problem is that they are like voices in the wilderness, almost unheard. 

You look for some sign of someone saying "perhaps we've gone a bit too far this time" but it's just not there. The 'todo vale' ruthless cynicism that we see suggests that life in a moral vacuum doesn't seem to affect the health of those who live in it at all. Just their judgement. It's sad and tiresome. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I'm still writing posts like this one after so many years of the same cynical, manipulative shit from these people. Then the new conservative attorney general throws a meaty bone to the hungry hounds by opening a formal investigation based on another piece of pseudo journalism from Libertad Digital. There will always be a few more bloodstained eurillos to be squeezed from inventing fake news stories, and a few more petty political points to be scored from Spain's worst ever terrorist attack. All because the subsequent election didn't turn out the way they wanted. That, you see, is what they call respect for the victims.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Where Público Has Gone Others Will Surely Follow

The closure last week of the paper edition of Público meant the end of the battle to preserve what may well turn out to be the last general interest printed newspaper to be launched in Spain. Público had never been profitable even though it did manage to establish a place in the newspaper market in its short existence, the paper was only launched in 2007. Indeed, it was almost unique amongst the press in Spain because the paper showed increasing sales at a time when the trend for most Spanish papers is very much the reverse. 

I bought it and liked it. There was definitely a market for a paper more to the left of the almost centrist positions generally adopted by El País. The problem was that launching a new daily newspaper in the age of the internet is a risky business. The crisis has had a savage effect on revenues from advertising that were already suffering from the shift of much of this revenue to the web. The strange thing is, given the times in which it was founded, is that the owners of Público didn't invest more time and resources on establishing their web presence. 

Público was of course part of a wider project, the attempt to build a media group that would rival the power of Prisa, the owners of El País. This project was headed by Jaume Roures, and the same people were behind the launch of the television channel La Sexta; which has now been swallowed by the owners of Antena 3. The length of the crisis, and perhaps the lack of any indications that it will soon be over, have meant that sinking more money into media and publishing operations no longer makes sense for Roures.

It was always slightly odd that a paper controlled by a wealthy media mogul like Roures would gift its readers with books by Marx or Lenin, although perhaps Friedrich Engels wouldn't have agreed with that appreciation. Now the employees of the paper wait to see how many of them will survive the closure, as the web edition of Público is still supposed to continue operating. Then there is the question of how those who will be fired will be compensated. It will cause considerable bitterness if Roures tries to use the newly reformed labour legislation to get away with reduced compensation for those sacked. 

There has been some undisguised glee at the closure in some sections of the right-wing press, celebrating a situation where only one left of centre national newspaper (El País) remains compared to four (ABC, El Mundo, La Gaceta and La Razón) on the right. These people are not, of course, those who will necessarily laugh last. There is little special about the case of Público and the situation of the rest of the press makes it highly likely that there will be further closures. I will be surprised if the four right wing papers still exist in their current form in two years time. Surely those who criticise public subsidy so frequently are not secretly desiring a bit of the same?

Vocento, the owners of ABC, and Prisa have both recently announced huge losses and the pressure is very much on in these companies to continue to cut staffing and reduce costs. El Mundo's Italian owners have written off a huge amount of losses from the Spanish editorial group and the paper has extended what were supposed to be temporary measures reducing salaries and costs. These are companies that have some financial cushion, over at the smaller ultra conservative Intereconomía the losses were already significant for 2010 and can be expected to be substantially bigger for 2011. Any viewers of their TV channel who foolishly handed over money in response to last year's appeal might as well just throw their cash into the deepest hole they can find; the result will be the same. 

Perhaps fusions or a wealthy and carefree sugar daddy might help to save some of these titles but the situation is unsustainable as it currently exists for one simple reason; the economic model that is needed to sustain a newspaper in the age of the internet has still not been found. Quality of the product is declining in those cases where there was any to begin with. The end of printed editions for many papers  is no longer a distant prospect, even in better economic times the revenue lost to internet is not going to return. This is a something that should be particularly worrying for those papers with the highest average age of reader (La Gaceta and La Razón in Spain), they are the ones who will lose more customers even if the magic solution for news delivery on the web is found.