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Lyncanthropy

“A real politician…never betrays his country to an outsider. He betrays it to himself. He is the enemy within.” Guy Endore, ‘The Werewolf of Paris.’

Pablo Casado: belligerent and uncertain. Photo: PP

The seemingly never-ending stream of national opinion polls in the Spanish media suggest that Pablo Casado has a genuinely good chance of becoming the country’s next prime minister. His Partido Popular (PP) has made up ground on the Socialists in recent months and, with a surging Vox, the two main parties on the right would have more seats in parliament than the two leftist parties currently governing in coalition.

It should be cause for celebration for the conservative leader. And yet, all is not well.

On taking the reins of the PP in 2018 Casado was a new young broom, untarnished by the corruption of his elders in the party and a far cry from the meme-spawning equivocation of his bland predecessor, Mariano Rajoy. Juan Carlos Monedero, a co-founder of the left-wing Podemos, even described Casado as “one of the finest speakers in parliament”.

But now, just over three years on, he is something else: an angry yet unconvincing figure, not entirely sure of who he is.

Few except his closest allies would echo Monedero’s complimentary words right now. The early months of the pandemic, when Casado waged a fiercely unstatesmanlike campaign to destabilise the coalition government, are now far in the past. But more recently he has risked becoming a figure of fun, in great part due to his outré public utterances: attacking solar energy because the sun doesn’t shine at night, or recommending that vegans and other upstarts should “go out one day with a shepherd so he can show them how to eat healthily.”

Casado’s eccentric style then took a more aggressive line, as he asked Pedro Sánchez in congress: “What the f**k has to happen for you to accept some responsibility?” (a variation on a phrase Sánchez himself once used during the dog days of his own stint in opposition).

All of this compounds the notion of Casado as a man in a panic. There are two obvious reasons for him to be in this state and both, curiously, are on the right of the political spectrum. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, Madrid’s regional premier, has become his main nemesis having taken a very different journey over the last 18 months. Before the pandemic, she was rarely taken seriously, even by her own PP voters. Having been hand-picked by Casado himself, she was simply a holding figure who seemed out of her depth as she made odd gaffes of her own. The idea of her one day leading the national party, let alone the country, was a little like those fanciful celluloid imaginings in which a well-known face fills a position of great responsibility: Sergio Ramos as chairman of the Bank of Spain; Belén Esteban head coach of the national football team; Díaz Ayuso as prime minister…You get the idea.

And yet, a one-word slogan to counter the strictures of the pandemic – “Freedom” – has converted Díaz Ayuso into an electoral phenomenon and a national figure whose ambition and success torment Casado. To make things worse for him, she recently earned the ultimate accolade in Spain: a flattering article in a foreign newspaper.

Further right lies his other problem: Vox. The far-right party’s rise has coincided almost exactly with his own tenure as PP leader (you can’t help but wonder: how would Rajoy have dealt with that challenge?). And Casado’s confusion has been on display throughout, unsure whether to harvest the substantial moderate furrow to the right of the Socialists – which has grown since the dramatic decline of Ciudadanos – or rip off his shirt and go toe-to-toe with Vox’s Santiago Abascal over the far-right vote.

In late 2020, Casado performed what appeared to many to be a move to the centre by making a clean break with Vox. Denouncing their policies in what was a carefully prepared speech in congress, he called for tolerance for people, “whatever the colour of their skin, whichever god they pray to, whichever person they love, whatever language they speak.” All good centre-ground stuff. “We don’t like you,” he told Abascal, just to make sure.

And yet, it turned out to be just another temporary swing towards the middle. Here we are, a year later, with Casado swearing in congress, trolling solar power and generally looking as belligerent as he ever has, with his party showing no signs of having broken ties with Vox in any meaningful way. It is the latest stylistic U-turn by a werewolf-politician who is constantly shifting shape between moderate human and far-right beast.

The great irony of all this is that until now, internal bickering had been the speciality of the Spanish left, while the very broad church that was the right somehow managed to get along. Now, the left is just about managing to work together, against the odds, while an electorally resurgent right is looking about as united as a school parents’ association.

Casado’s curse, it seems, is that he still looks like an opposition leader rather than a prime minister-in-waiting. Sánchez had much the same problem until 2018 when, after getting into power through a parliamentary manoeuvre, his polls suddenly shot up purely on the strength of the fact that he now looked like a PM. The glass ceiling of public imagination had been shattered.

“If Casado ever gets into [PM’s residence] La Moncloa, those who are making fun of him and calling for him to be replaced might even say he is charismatic,” noted Pilar Gómez, of El Confidencial.

That may well be true. He’s got to get there first, though.

Whither reggaeton?

I recently stumbled upon an article in which a Mexican psychologist warned that reggaeton is bad for children’s cognitive growth, fuelling anxiety, confusion and low self-esteem. I found this heartening, not because I delight in the stunted development of the younger generations but because it reinforced all sorts of prejudices I had long harboured about reggaeton, a seemingly ubiquitous musical genre which has been dominating the Spanish-speaking world for what feels like decades, since emerging from Puerto Rico.

What is it I don’t like? The bog-standard beat which is somehow both soporific and stressful; the sub-fratboy lyrics, which on a bad day can make Gangsta rappers sound like feminists (ie: “You have a big ass/ve-ry big/and I’ve studied it /I’m about to graduate/and on my face I’ll have it tattooed…”); and then there are the childish-yet-creepy artist names: Casper Mágico, Luny Tunes, Bad Bunny.

Bad Bunny: neither big nor clever.

Full disclosure here: I am one of millions of innocent people who, in the summer of 2017, were scarred by the experience of being forced to listen over and over again to the airwave-colonising reggaeton hit ‘Despacito’ by Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi. Those few weeks of my life are now a blur of heat combined with a nagging two-step beat and some lyrics which include: “Oh/ You are the magnet and I’m the metal/I’m getting closer and I’m making a plan/Just thinking about it makes my heart race/Oh yeah…”

But my biggest problem with reggaeton is not the lyrics, the silly names or the repetitive beat. It’s the fact that it just won’t die. In a lifetime we witness endless musical fads, some better than others but virtually all destined to fade. Yet reggaeton has so far had a longer life than New Wave, Acid House, Grunge and Trip Hop all put together. It’s the indestructible amoeba. The morphing variant.

And, if anything, it has gained respectability. In her bestselling memoir of small-town life, Feria, Ana Iris Simón recalls the early days of reggaeton and how it “went from being something crass and vulgar, what they played at the village fiestas where those who wanted to be cool refused to go precisely because there was reggaeton on all the time…to being the main attraction of the Primavera and Sónar [music festivals].” Not only is it ubiquitous, she’s saying, but it also has credibility.

I was recently complaining about all this to a friend. He corrected me.

“You’re looking at this all wrong,” he said. “Reggaeton isn’t a fad. It’s here to stay – like rock ‘n’ roll or hip hop.”

This realisation initially left me stunned. For days I was dismayed by the thought that we are saddled with this rhythmic banality forever. But then came acceptance and the hope that perhaps a new, innovative artist will arrive (Good Bunny, perhaps? Or Mummy Yankee?) to drag reggaeton out of its ghetto of blingy mediocrity and down some adventurous new avenues. But the beat, it seems, will just go on and on.

Spin

About three years ago, when I was on the board of Spain’s association of foreign correspondents, I suggested to my fellow members that we should try to organise a meeting with Iván Redondo. By then, he had already become something of a legendary figure. A former advisor to the conservative Popular Party, Redondo had switched sides and been appointed as a chief advisor to the Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, who had just become prime minister.

Having had some contact with Redondo previously, I volunteered to get in touch and try to organise the event, which we envisaged as an off-the-record meeting which would give foreign correspondents a privileged glance under the bonnet of the new government. I spoke to his people and, to my surprise, they immediately said yes, Iván would be delighted to meet with the foreign press. A date was set and our members were informed. Almost every single one of them immediately signed up for the meeting, a show of interest that hardly any other public figure in Spain can generate.

I felt great about all this. Until, that is, one of Redondo’s people called a couple of days before the big date to tell me that something had come up and, sadly, we’d have to reschedule. Another date was set. Unfortunately, a couple of days before that meeting, exactly the same thing happened and we had to reschedule again. I was now starting to worry, because this was, after all, my doing. I was in a taxi in Valencia when the third fateful phone call came from a member of Redondo’s team to tell me that sorry, but yet again, Iván couldn’t make it. The meeting, needless to say, never happened.

Apart from being humiliated by my hat trick of Redondo jilts, I was amazed at the interest he could muster. This small, thirty-something, man had created an aura beyond that of an ordinary government advisor. That was linked, perhaps to his own obsession with pop culture and American-style political spin. A fan of The West Wing, Redondo was, or saw himself as, Spain’s own Toby Ziegler, managing the prime minister’s image with more zeal than anyone before him.

That energy and imagination has been credited for arguably Sánchez’s cleverest political move – the 2018 no-confidence motion which saw him replace Mariano Rajoy as prime minister. If, indeed, it was Redondo’s idea, it was brilliant, like that which saw health minister Salvador Illa step down earlier this year and run successfully as the Socialist candidate in the Catalan election.

It’s hard to overstate how much Spanish commentators have imbued Redondo with an aura of strategic wizardry and even sinister powers. He has been described as “the king of political plumbers”, “the most powerful man in government” and Sánchez’s “all-powerful guru”. On a less flattering note, he has been called a “bible seller” and drawn countless comparisons with the enigmatic advisor to Empress Alexandria of Russia: “The Rasputin of Moncloa”, “Sánchez’s Rasputin”, or even “The Basque Rasputin” (he is, to be fair, from San Sebastián).

His time advising Sánchez has, of course, included its fair share of missteps. Early in his tenure, the prime minister’s team tried to cast him as a hipster heavyweight leader, looking uber-cool in shades as he jetted around Europe to meet his counterparts. A weird set of official photos of Sánchez’s hands as he travelled back from Berlin carried the laughable, spin-inflected text: “The hands of the prime minister show the determination of the government”. Another, much more substantial, error attributed by many to Redondo was Sánchez’s failure to form a new government after the Socialists won the April 2019 election, leading to a damaging political hiatus. Last May’s lacklustre campaign and performance by the Socialists in the Madrid regional election, meanwhile, would have made Toby Ziegler blanch.

But now, Redondo is nowhere to be seen. Having reportedly rubbed many in the Moncloa palace up the wrong way, he was one of the high-profile victims of a recent cabinet reshuffle. So what should we expect, now that a new political season is beginning without the bible-selling Rasputin-plumber-guru? It is tempting to anticipate a new style of government – one that depends less on choreographed moves and sweeping gestures (remember the Aquarius migrant boat episode?) and more on substance – a trend which, it could be argued, is also encouraged by the retirement from politics of the headline-savvy Pablo Iglesias.

However, I have the feeling now that I, my fellow correspondents and pretty much everyone who has offered an opinion on Redondo over the last couple of years, has inflated his influence beyond its true worth. The many conspiracy theorists who have emerged throughout the pandemic have shown that it can be tempting to believe that there is a grand puppet master pulling the strings. The notion of a single scheming genius whispering in the ear of the prime minister while an irate platoon of advisors and ministers are made to wait outside the room is irresistible, but probably not entirely accurate.

So let’s see how much things change over the coming months now that Redondo has gone. In the meantime, all I’ll say is: Don’t worry, Iván, I forgive you.

Hair

“If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.” Hillary Clinton

Retirement can take many forms. For some, it means the purchase of a cherry wood pipe and some grade-A shag tobacco. For others, it might be that longed-for yacht and a trip round the Caribbean. In the case of erstwhile Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, it means having a haircut.

There were other issues on the news agenda last week: the fate of 140 billion euros in EU funds; the lifting of a national state of emergency; the bombing of Gaza. But in Spain, all were trumped by the news that Iglesias, who recently retired from politics, had amputated his talismanic, swishing ponytail.

A heavy rinse of meaning. Photo: Dani Gago.

The story broke with a side-on photo of him sitting placidly in the sunshine, holding a book while gazing into the distance, the ponytail now gone. That picture immediately unleashed a torrent of comment, analysis and downright gibberish as Spain obsessed over the absent hair. Was this a personal statement or a political one? Was Iglesias in crisis? Did the haircut in question represent some kind of betrayal?

To be fair, it’s impossible not to imbue those lopped-off locks with a heavy rinse of meaning. Just look at the timing. Iglesias did this days before the 10th anniversary of the most celebrated moment of the indignados movement: when tens of thousands of people gathered in Madrid on May 15th, 2011, demanding a major shake-up of the two-party political system.

The indignados’ legacy was the breaking up of that duopoly. Podemos was not the party of 15-M, but it did, as one commentator put it, “drink from the same well”, digesting and then exploiting the clamour for upheaval. From 2014 onwards, Podemos and (in a different way) Ciudadanos challenged the Socialist-PP supremacy, at times overtaking them in polls and repeatedly forcing them to negotiate in order to govern. But in the last 18 months, the hyper-leaders of both parties have resigned. In the case of Ciudadanos’s Albert Rivera, hubris did for him; as for Iglesias, his status as a lightning rod for the right appeared to take its toll.

The PP’s extraordinary resurgence in the recent Madrid election might just be a freak, a perfect storm of late-pandemic circumstances which made the victory of libertarian-populist Isabel Díaz Ayuso inevitable. Or it might be the shape of things to come: the restoration of a staid two-party system (okay, three if you include Vox) which was tested and shown wanting during the euro-zone financial crisis.

Squeezed between that election and the indignados’s birthday, it’s hard not to see the severing of that clump of hair as anything other than the end of a decade-long socio-political dream.

But then again.

The insightful Marina Lobo offered another explanation: “Nobody has thought about the possibility that Iglesias may have gone to the hairdresser’s to have a trim and things just got out of hand.”

A new threat

Last week, Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias revealed that he had received a death threat, sent via the Interior Ministry. It turned out that he wasn’t the only one: the head of the civil guard, María Gámez, and the interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, also received similar missives.

These were not simply sinister social media posts. Four bullet cartridges were sent to Iglesias with a stencilled note identifying him, his partner, government minister Irene Montero, and his parents as targets. Bullets were also sent to Gámez and Grande-Marlaska. The style was a throwback to the dark years of Eta’s terrorist violence, when the Basque separatist group sent such letters to politicians, judges, business owners and others as a matter of course.

A photo of the letter and bullets sent to Pablo Iglesias.

It could be that these letters are simply an aberration. But, sadly, they fit into the pattern of Spanish politics of recent times, in which aggression has become increasingly predominant, creating a swirling vacuum where genuine debate of public issues should be.

However, the death threats themselves have been overshadowed by the response to them on the part of the far-right Vox party. Rocío Monasterio, candidate for Vox in the upcoming Madrid regional election, cast in doubt the veracity of the threats, suggesting Iglesias had fabricated them, and would not condemn them  — “I condemn all violence,” she said, while refusing to acknowledge this particular incident.

This takes Vox deep into Trump territory, where even the slightest suggestion of statesmanship is shunned if it carries no political advantage. But it also reflects how politically uncomfortable these threats are for the far-right party and many others. Eta stopped killing over a decade ago and it formally disbanded three years ago. Yet Spain’s hard right has sought to keep it alive as a political issue, monopolising terrorism victimhood (despite the fact that Eta’s victims came from across the political spectrum) while casting the left as allies of the non-existent organisation. It has been a mendacious yet effective policy which has blown oxygen into the embers of Eta’s macabre legacy and helped polarise the country.

Iglesias’s status as the target of a domestic terrorist threat turns all this on its head. For Vox, and many in the Popular Party, Podemos’s leader is a friend of terrorists, so he can’t possibly be the victim of terrorism. Can he? In a binary world, many will find this too much to digest and so will buy Vox’s warped conspiracy theory that the letters are a hoax.

Quite another matter is whether Iglesias was right to walk out of a live radio debate because Vox was peddling this line, and whether the candidates of the Socialist Party and Más Madrid are well advised to join him in boycotting further debates with the far right. Engaging with those who are gleefully hacking away at Spanish democracy with a post-truth pickaxe will never be easy. But surely it is necessary, now more than ever.

A bit of a lark

Here he comes, loping over the hills, handsome and unstoppable, gliding across Spain’s political landscape, from somewhere near its centre towards an unspecified place somewhere on the right. Yes, Toni Cantó is Spain’s own Forrest Gump. A witness of calamity. Always on the move, forever jumping off the wagon of one crisis-ridden political party in order to leap onto another with better prospects.

Toni Cantó: Spain’s Forrest Gump.

What are we to make of this strange phenomenon? Cantó has hogged headlines recently after his enlistment as a candidate for the conservative Popular Party, the same party he berated for its corruption and stance against nationalism when he was in Ciudadanos. He had joined Ciudadanos after his previous political home, the UPyD, started to look unviable. And before that, remember, he began his political career in a party called Neighbours for Torrelodones, which was formed expressly to remove the corruption-plagued PP from office in that town.

The former actor’s gallop through four parties in 14 years has made him the target of plenty of vitriol and the butt of quite a few jokes. Madrid president Isabel Díaz Ayuso boasted that Spain owed her one for dragging Pablo Iglesias out of the government in order to run against her in May’s regional election. The rejoinder quip is that Spain owes her another favour for ensuring Cantó will stay out of our theatres for the next four years.

But beyond the gags, what does Cantó’s never-ending tour of political entities tell us, apart from reinforcing the theory that when someone says “I’m neither on the left or the right” they are most definitely on the right?

A recent interview with veteran journalist Iñaki Gabilondo seemed to touch obliquely, but squarely, on the Cantó hoopla. He described the 2008 economic crash in Spain as something that went beyond pure finance. “We didn’t enter an economic crisis, but rather a kind of brutal psycho-social stupor,” Gabilondo said, explaining how it fuelled a kind of turbo-charged political nuttiness in Spain. It’s arguably a trance that the country – or at least much of it – remains locked in today as political trench warfare and noismo dominate. I mention all this because the beginning of that crisis was precisely the time when Cantó was abandoning his b-list acting exploits to embark on a political career.

It is a career that has seen him develop from breath-of-fresh-air silver-fox outsider into a pseudo-centrist permatroll of the left; an anti-advert for social media, peddling half-truths and often no truths at all.

Members of Spain’s political class have faced a frequent criticism over the years: that they cling to their posts and their party lines because they are professional politicians with nowhere else to go but up the party pole. Cantó, however, wandered into the fray 14 years ago with his name recognition already established, from years playing David in the TV series 7 vidas and a role in an Almodóvar film. He represents a totally different problem, one that Americans became familiar with in 2016. It’s the idea of elected office as a bit of a lark, an effective way of expanding your Twitter follower base, or of reminding your agent that you still exist. This, arguably, is the more dangerous trend, because it appears to have no consequences for the protagonist, who can, at any time, slink back to his or her old job or simply seek out a new party.

Where will this particular political tourist’s travels end? On the far-right? Somewhere weird that lies beyond? Or, perhaps, back on the stage in a small theatre in Valencia playing Widow Twankey?

“I’m so happy to see you,” Cantó’s character, the transvestite Lola, says in a key scene in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother. “It’s just a shame it had to be like this.” Right now, many people will be saying the same of Cantó.

A resolution

Practice mindfulness. Cut down on the Rioja. Learn rudimentary Pashto. Take up the bassoon.

As the new year begins, we have a tendency to make resolutions. Many are designed to tighten our waistlines or broaden our knowledge, while others are aimed at providing inner peace. It is the latter I am searching for as I lay out perhaps my most ambitious new year’s resolution to date: to work out who Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, really is.

I know that sounds banal. After all, there are plenty of answers out there already. “He’s a kind of Charles Manson of Spanish politics,” declared Hermann Tertsch, an MEP for the far-right Vox. Rosa Díez, a former Socialist colleague of Sánchez who has just written an entire book about how awful he is, calls him a “psychopath”. And Pablo Casado, leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), has called him “the biggest criminal in the history of Spanish democracy”.

If you mash all that together, you get a bearded, gun-toting, Scarface character, entrenched in La Moncloa and so barking mad he makes Trump look like a Shaolin monk.

Yet if you ask the same question of those on other points of the political spectrum, you’ll get curiously different answers. Catalan nationalists tend to frame him as puppet-in-chief of a repressive Spanish state. The former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont presented Sánchez as a sinister-yet-confused half-wit when he said the prime minister “seems to think the vaccine is the constitution”.

Pedro Sánchez: a blue-suited prism.

For those on the hard left, meanwhile, Sánchez is little more than part of a wishy-washy wing of the country’s conservatives. Even his own coalition partners, Podemos, have accused his party of being “in step with the right and far right” recently.

All of the above highlights the hyperbole and histrionics of Spanish political debate, which has made great progress in recent years in emptying language of its meaning. But it also underlines the fact that Sánchez has become a six-foot-tall, blue-suited prism, allowing whoever views him to see whatever they wish, depending on their own particular grievances and obsessions. Separatist-appeasing, narco-chavista radical? Neo-Francoist centralist? Conservative wolf dressed up as a progressive sheep? Take your pick.

When he first appeared as an outsider in the Socialist Party leadership primary of 2014, Sánchez’s agenda was vague, moderate and pretty uninspiring – all characteristics that appeared to be exaggerated by his easy grin and tennis-coach looks. His uncontroversial platform and self-declared “felipista” status suggested he was more or less on the party’s right wing, in line with the market-friendly social democracy of Felipe González. Little that he did altered that view of him until, in 2016, he dug his heels in and refused to offer parliamentary support to Mariano Rajoy’s corruption-ridden conservatives as they sought to form a new government. That sudden, unflagged bout of conviction politics led to a lengthy paralysis in Spanish politics and, eventually, the removal of Sánchez from the party leadership by his rivals.

That episode also kicked off a much more interesting season in Sánchez’s political career. His determination to wrest back the Socialist leadership, as he motored round the country in his little Citroën gathering support, looked Quixotic. But he succeeded. Then he performed what is surely one of the most daring and remarkable parliamentary manoeuvres Spain or any European country has seen in recent times: a no-confidence motion which narrowly led to him replacing Mariano Rajoy as prime minister in 2018. The following year, Sánchez, a two-time election loser, resoundingly won the general election. But then he committed a hopelessly clumsy error: allowing familiar old disagreements within the left to prevent him from forming a new government. Redemption of sorts came when he won another election and resolved his differences with Podemos to form a pioneering coalition. Then coronavirus hit.

Apart from reading like the treatment for a racy new Netflix drama, the above highlights the instability of the country’s political landscape. It also provides frustratingly little material from which to build a clear picture of who Sánchez is. His government is undoubtedly on the left – but where on the left? He is in coalition with the neo-communists of Unidas Podemos, but his junior partners have made so many compromises on their way to government that their original radicalism has been heavily diluted. And surely it is a stretch to describe as “radical” a government whose economy ministry is led by Nadia Calviño.

Sánchez’s insistence on courting the support of Catalan and Basque nationalists has provided further ammunition for those who label him a traitor of Spain and a pal of lawbreakers and terrorists. But my impression is that his strategy in this area is a combination of conviction – a genuine desire to defuse tensions in Catalonia – and sheer survival instinct, based on the fact that he needs the parliamentary support of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).

For decades, Spain’s leaders had little reason to worry about parliamentary numbers, such was the stability of the two-party system, allowing them to present a coherent “narrative” to voters: González was the centre-left moderniser; Aznar the Neo-Con deregulator; Zapatero the loose-spending promoter of social rights; Rajoy the drab austerity-monger; and Sánchez…what, exactly? Part of his problem is that in today’s highly fragmented Spanish politics, the challenge of keeping things together in congress naturally subsumes any overarching vision for the country that the prime minister may harbour.

For example, it’s hard to discern his policy on the matter of the monarchy, which is reeling from former king Juan Carlos’s drastic fall from grace. So far, Sánchez and his Socialists have walked a thin line between expressing respect for the institution and dismay at the former monarch’s sprawling catalogue of scandals. The feeling you get is that Sánchez is sniffing the wind of public mood before considering a leap onto one side or the other of the republican/monarchist fence.

In the coming months, Covid will continue to dominate public debate, meaning plenty of discussion and dispute over restrictions, testing, PPE and very little in the way of evidence about Sánchez’s political DNA. One exception could be how he and his government manage the 140 billion euros Spain is due to receive from the EU coronavirus fund.

A year from now I hope to have a clearer answer to the question of who Sánchez really is. But I won’t be holding my breath. I’ll save it for the bassoon.

After the second wave, how about a second Transition?

In the summer, I interviewed Pablo Iglesias and most of what he told me did not come as a great surprise. The deputy prime minister’s insistence that the right were now locked out of government for “decades” by Podemos’s coalition with the Socialists seemed somewhat exaggerated but hardly off-message. His welcoming of Angela Merkel’s approach to the Covid-19 EU rescue fund was interesting rather than astonishing. And his claim that some in Spain would go to any lengths to try to remove him from government was a familiar refrain from a man who had become the bête noire of the right.

But his assertion that even if his party, Podemos, had won a general election, Spain’s political and economic powers would have clubbed together to prevent it from leading a government was more startling.

We will probably never find out if he was right, given Podemos’s steady electoral decline over the last five years and its status as the junior partner in this coalition. But Iglesias’s claim is worth taking seriously given that this was a senior cabinet minister saying that Spain’s democratic institutions are too weak to be sure of them following through on an election result.

Pablo Iglesias. Photo: Dani Gago

For some time now those institutions have been shipping credibility. The economic crisis of a decade ago revealed thick seams of dishonesty and amateurism running through the revered financial system. The glut of corruption scandals that followed did much the same for the political class, as well as tainting the monarchy. Meanwhile, the Catalan crisis has put in question the country’s territorial model.

The monarchy took yet another, potentially fatal, body blow this summer when the former king, Juan Carlos, fled to the United Arab Emirates amid a legal storm surrounding his financial activities.

I list these episodes, misdemeanours and screw-ups not in a blithe attempt to give Spanish democracy a kicking, but rather to suggest that perhaps it’s time for a change.

There is a theory that every four decades Spain has a major crisis. It’s a fairly sound hypothesis if you take “crisis” in its broadest definition, to mean a major upheaval or trauma, and if you start in 1898. Four decades on from the military defeat and the loss of colonies of that year takes us to 1938, and the middle of the civil war. Forty years on and it’s 1978, the year of the post-Franco constitution. Move forward again and, like clockwork, you have the current territorial crisis (with the added ingredients of political confrontation and, more recently, a global pandemic).

A full-blown new constitution would be a tall order, especially right now. But surely it is time that Spain faced up to the fact that, beyond the glaring weaknesses of its politics (superbly explained here) and monarchy, the institutional bedrock of any democracy – the judiciary – is desperately ripe for an overhaul.

The Supreme Court’s use of the archaic charge of sedition to hand out draconian jail sentences to Catalan pro-independence leaders last year was just one of many decisions the judiciary has taken which have put in question its objectivity and command of basic common sense. The defendants in that case are also among many who have been the targets of the trigger-happy use of preventive custody by judges. Former FC Barcelona president Sandro Rosell, who spent two years in preventive prison before being cleared of all charges, is another. (As John Carlin has asked: can anyone seriously imagine the president of Real Madrid facing such treatment?).

The Audiencia Nacional, a court created in the Franco era, does a great deal of important work, particularly in the area of anti-terrorism and organised crime. However, it has also spent substantial time and taxpayers’ money pursuing supporters of the terrorist group Eta – which, it should be pointed out, no longer exists – as well as bringing bizarre cases against rappers, singers and other artists for crimes they have supposedly committed through their lyrics and social media posts.

There is also the question of basic consistency. This month, two regional courts, in Madrid and Castilla y León, gave opposing rulings, just days apart, on the exact same issue: whether to ratify restrictions imposed by the health ministry to control Covid-19.

Even its most ardent fans can see that the justice system needs to be more independent, better equipped and more highly regarded by Spaniards, especially if is going to continue playing the prominent role it has held in recent years in public life due to the pathological inability of politicians to “do politics”. The current government has now taken steps in this direction in an effort to end the impasse preventing new nominations to the deeply politicised judicial governing body, the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ). But that reform is driven by short-term political needs rather than a long-term vision.

All of which brings us back to Pablo Iglesias. Since I spoke to the deputy prime minister he has become a potential defendant in a case revolving around the theft of a telephone belonging to a former aide. The Supreme Court must now decide whether or not to proceed with the Byzantine “Dina case” and investigate Iglesias for allegedly tampering with a phone card, revealing secret information and falsifying a crime.

Iglesias has said that this whole affair is itself a set-up driven by those who simply cannot abide the fact he and his party are in government. To back up his argument he has pointed to several glitches in the case which would appear to cast doubt on whether it can stand up in court. Perhaps most significantly, he can also point to the fact that José Manuel Villarejo, the disgraced ex-policeman who continues to be at the centre of what appears to be a genuine deep-state apparatus, is linked to the case of the stolen phone.

I don’t know if Iglesias is guilty or not of the crimes he has been accused of – I would like to think that his deep-state theories are mere paranoia. But enough doubts have been cast on this case for it to become yet another barometer of the health and quality of the justice system and, by extension, the country’s democracy. Whichever way it goes, surely Spain should not wait another 40 years before getting itself a judiciary that is fit for purpose.

‘Robinson’

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When I was an English-language teaching assistant in a small town in Castilla-La Mancha in the 1990s, one of the first things students would ask me was: “Do you know Robinson?”. It took me a while to find out that Michael Robinson was an English ex-footballer who had made a living for himself as a pundit on Spanish TV. To my amazement, he had been a striker in the great Liverpool side of the mid-1980s. The reason I, a Liverpool fan, hadn’t heard of him before was that he had been a squad player who rarely got a chance to feature in big games (a couple of players called Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush also happened to be vying for the same position).

Robinson it turned out, was a talented TV presenter and commentator, who was respected for his professionalism and loved for his enthusiasm and warmth, which helps explain the outpouring of feeling when he died of cancer recently, at the age of 61.

This is the piece I wrote for The Irish Times about his career in Spain.

And here’s something a little less formal I wrote a while back. It’s called ‘Michael Robinson’s Calling’.

The blame game

“Mr Sánchez, you only care about power and we only care about Spain.” – Pablo Casado.

Another crisis hits Spain and once again the country’s political class responds not with unity, statesmanship and deliberation but with tribalism, conspiracy theories and the airing of old grudges.

When Pablo Casado, leader of the main opposition Partido Popular (PP), promised, soon after coronavirus hit the country, to stand together with the leftist government of Pedro Sánchez it was refreshing news. The country’s politics has been so bitterly divided in recent years that it was easy to wonder if only a mammoth national challenge like this could bridge the chasm.

Pablo Casado: Angry, but not really helping. Photo: Partido Popular.

But the truce has not lasted. To be honest, it never really began. According to the PP and Vox, the second- and third-largest forces in parliament, there are two main reasons why Spain has been so hard hit by Covid-19: Pedro Sánchez and Pablo Iglesias. They would like us to believe the spread of the virus and, in particular, the deaths it has caused are primarily the fault of the prime minister and his coalition partner.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, affording us a view of where the government may have gone wrong. Allowing the massive March 8 Women’s Day marches to go ahead now looks like a mistake, especially as the government itself suddenly changed tack and closed schools just days later, albeit several days before introducing the full lockdown. Like pretty much every European country, Spain was woefully unprepared in terms of equipment and strategy. Sánchez’s communications strategy, meanwhile, has been an unfortunate blend of heavy spin and high-handedness.

A cool-headed look at where things have gone wrong will be needed. However, a rather more pressing issue is how to overcome the crisis. And that is where the political opposition has lost its way, reverting to type as it desperately seeks to apportion blame while refusing to cooperate in the national response.

Casado, for example, has demanded an apology from Sánchez for allowing the March 8 events to go ahead. He has reprimanded him for not wearing a black tie in Congress or hanging flags at half-mast. He has also reminded Sánchez of how, in 2012, his own house was surrounded by angry leftist demonstrators – using this as proof of the Socialist Party’s radicalism. Casado has dismissed Sánchez’s invitation to form a national cross-party pact as “a decoy” aimed at facilitating a change of regime, apparently transforming Spain into Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.

You may be forgiven for wondering how any of these proposals or outbursts helps Spain overcome coronavirus. Any country at a time like this deserves – and needs – an opposition that can provide constructive criticism and institutional unity (or “loyalty” to use the Spanish phrase). Few would expect the far-right disruptor Vox to offer such things, and indeed it has not. But it still comes as a shock to see the PP, a party which has itself governed Spain for a total of 15 years, behave like this.

Casado’s party is, after all, well acquainted with the difficulties of national crises. When in government in 2002, it mishandled the listing Prestige oil tanker off the Atlantic coast, contributing to an environmental disaster. The following year, it supervised the misidentification of bodies following the death of 62 Spanish peacekeepers in an air crash in Turkey, compounding the grief of relatives.

It’s also the same party which, in 2004, under then-prime minister José María Aznar, told the nation that Basque group Eta had carried out the terrorist attack that killed 191 people in Madrid. It hadn’t, but the belief that it had was fuelled and perpetuated, like a religious cult, by the party and its ideological allies in the media. The outlandish theory was used to cast the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero as illegitimate, a variation on the Trumpian “birther” strategy before such a thing even existed.

Sounds familiar? Sixteen years on, Spain has another Socialist prime minister whose legitimacy the right is casting in doubt. This time it is because he has needed the parliamentary support of a Catalan pro-independence party to govern and that his coalition partner is Podemos, a leftist force which in the past has had links to Bolivarian administrations in South America.

Podemos’s leader, Iglesias, has further fuelled such hostility with his recent celebration of the anniversary of the Second Republic on social media. It was naïve, perhaps, but hardly the proof many were seeking that he is plotting to overthrow Spain’s parliamentary democracy and install an Andean autocracy.

It seems to be his parliamentary dependence on Catalan nationalists and Podemos which are the reason why Sánchez is drawing so much criticism from the right, more than his handling of the coronavirus crisis itself. The problem is, this betrays a deeply worrying conception of democracy, one that was neatly displayed recently by the singer and TV personality Bertín Osborne, who posted on Twitter a video of himself quaffing wine, praising healthcare workers and Spain in general, while complaining about the country’s leaders being there only “circumstantially”.

What Osborne doesn’t understand is that whatever you think of those who have been elected to lead you, they have been elected to lead you. Eventually you’ll get the chance to vote them out of office. Yet this fact has been impossible to digest for those who share the entitled approach of Aznar and his political offspring, who have insisted on dragging their bitter baggage into the coronavirus emergency.

This political nastiness is one of many sub-plots to the current crisis and it belongs alongside the sinister weirdos who daub doctors’ cars with insults and send letters to supermarket workers telling them to move out of their apartment block due to contagion concerns.

Fortunately, there has been a much more gratifying side to the emergency in Spain, that of the tireless healthcare workers, the eight o’clock applause, the online humour and solidarity. And the political right has not behaved as one in recent weeks. Inés Arrimadas, the new leader of Ciudadanos, has appeared to drag her party away from the masochistic tribalism it had pursued under Albert Rivera, towards something more sensible, combining “loyalty” with criticism.

But what coronavirus has done is to place under scrutiny the tired old word “patriotism”. Unfortunately, it has become so twisted and curdled in Spain that it is in danger of meaning little more than wearing a red-and-yellow bracelet and barking “España es un país grande” over and over. As it faces the enormous challenges of the months to come, the country could do without that particular brand of national pride.

A recent poll published by El País reflected how politics is swaying people’s view of this crisis. Forty-seven percent of those asked approved of the government’s handling of the situation; 48 percent disapproved. Last year’s two general elections gave very similar numbers in terms of the split between the parties on the left and those on the right. A right-wing voter is probably not going to approve of Sánchez’s handling of this crisis, whatever the prime minister does. A left-wing voter probably will. Far from eliminating tribal splits and uniting the country, coronavirus has become yet another political battleground in Spain.

History may eventually judge Sánchez and his government harshly for how they have handled this healthcare crisis. But right now it might be just as relevant to ask: How patriotic are you being, Pablo Casado?