BBC Radio 4’s excellent Profile programme turned its witty and incisive gaze on Spain’s prime minister recently. I was among those asked to contribute, along with Miguel-Anxo Murado and Rajoy biographer Antón Losada.
BBC Radio 4’s excellent Profile programme turned its witty and incisive gaze on Spain’s prime minister recently. I was among those asked to contribute, along with Miguel-Anxo Murado and Rajoy biographer Antón Losada.
Spain has suffered two jihadist terror attacks over the last 13 years. In March 2004, bombs planted on trains in Madrid killed 191 people and in the days that followed, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards turned out onto the streets to express their condemnation of the attack and solidarity for the victims. Then, as it emerged that the government of José María Aznar had erroneously told the country that Eta had been responsible, the mood changed. Aznar’s desperate insistence that it was not Al-Qaeda (and therefore nothing to do with Spain’s presence in Iraq) failed to convince voters, who delivered a shock result in the general election three days after the attack, putting the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in power.
Many voters on the right would never accept that result as legitimate. Egged on by certain media (especially El Mundo) and politicians in Aznar’s Partido Popular (PP), the more gullible and conspiracy minded continued to believe that Eta – and even elements of the Spanish state or Socialist Party – had been involved in plotting the attack.
I would not wish on any country the poisonous atmosphere that Spain saw in the following months, during which the legitimacy of the new government was constantly undermined and relatives of some of those killed in the attack were insulted in the street for not accepting the cranks’ version of events.
The country has changed a great deal since then, in many ways for the better, and the so-called “11-M” conspiracy has more or less evaporated. Thankfully, we have not seen the same kind of collective madness in the wake of the Ramblas and Cambrils attacks of August 17-18.
However, other schisms have become apparent in recent days.
On the train from Madrid to Barcelona on August 18th, I bumped into a Catalan congresswoman from the Socialist Party and I asked her if she thought the recent attacks would have any effect on Catalonia’s plans to stage an illegal referendum on independence from Spain on October 1. The gist of her response was that it wouldn’t and that very soon, Spanish politics would be back to normal.
I agreed, but I think neither of us anticipated what followed: an impressive show of unity, followed by confusion and plenty of bile.
That unity was the gathering of politicians and King Felipe along with thousands of others in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya for a minute’s silence, the day after the van attack in the city. The chants of “No tinc por” (“I’m not afraid”) that followed were deeply moving and as businesses opened up again that day and tourists once again wandered the Ramblas en masse, it seemed that this was the best kind of response to a senseless act.
But barely had the candles been lit on the Ramblas’s improvised shrines to the victims (see photo above) than things started to sour.
Much of that curdling has been played out in the media. An ill-judged editorial in El País needlessly dragged the Catalan independence issue into the Barcelona attack fallout, lamenting the “flagrant breaking of laws, the games of deceit… and political opportunism” of the northeastern region’s government.
Meanwhile, a blame game has ensued, with many in the media and security forces apparently determined to highlight the failure of the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, to heed concerns which had apparently informally been expressed by Belgian authorities about the imam at the centre of the plot, Abdelbaki Es Satty.
The Mossos’s hogging of the headlines after shooting several of the terrorists appears to have bothered some in Madrid, as does the fact that the Catalan police chief Josep Lluís Trapero, and the regional premier, Carles Puigdemont, offered updates on the investigation in Catalan rather than Spanish.
“Is it possible to offer a greater level of stupidity, meanness and provincialism (not to say necrophilia)?” fumed Pedro Pitarch, a retired lieutenant general, of a televised appearance by Puigdemont after the attacks, on his blog.
Meanwhile, others have been quick to blame Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, for the attack, for not having installed bollards at the top of the Ramblas (Alcorcón mayor David Pérez, of the PP, accused her of “paving the way” for the terrorists).
Such huffing and puffing from is perhaps inevitable after a tragedy of this kind. But the political context for all this is unprecedented, lending an extra layer of tension: the October 1 independence referendum is the culmination of half a decade of political crisis and deep uncertainty, undoubtedly fuelling much of the unnecessary behaviour of recent days on both “sides” of the territorial argument. It helps explain, for example, the determination of some supporters of independence to trumpet the rather unconvincing argument that their region’s response to the attack is proof in itself that they are ready to form a new state.
One fiercely pro-independence man I met on the Ramblas on August 18th told me that “it’s not the time to bring out the flags” because displays of nationalism at that moment would distract attention from the victims and he had no problem with the fact that the Spanish prime minister and king were in the city. But many others saw things differently, and the pro-independence estelada was a common feature of the anti-terror march a week later in Barcelona, as were boos and whistles for Rajoy and King Felipe (justified, supposedly, by the “hypocrisy” of a Spanish state that does business with Saudi Arabia).
What would Javier Martínez, the father of the three-year-old boy Xavi who was killed on the Ramblas, think of all this? Amid the flag-waving, political jockeying and finger-pointing he embraced an imam in the town of Rubí just days after losing his son in the attack in what has to be the ultimate act of unity and defiance.
So often in the wake of an attack like this we are told that we have to make sure our lives are not overly disrupted, because “that’s what the terrorists want”. Yes, but they also want us divided and unsure of who our allies are. In the last few days we have not seen the hateful delirium that gripped Spain in the spring of 2004. But the divisions are nonetheless there and everyone – politicians, police, retired military, newspaper editors, bloggers, unionists and separatists – would do well to step back from their agenda and glance at the bigger picture.
One of the most cogent definitions of populism I’ve ever heard is that it seeks to make the business of being a politician look easy. If that is indeed the case, Abdalá Bucaram, erstwhile president of Ecuador, fits the bill. He certainly makes handling a crowd look a good deal easier than the populists who have emerged in his wake in recent years.
An Ecuadorian friend recently showed me this clip of Bucaram in action on the campaign trail three years ago:
On July 4th, a wave capsized a boat carrying 52 Sub-Saharan migrants from the Moroccan coast north across the Mediterranean. Three men were rescued by the Spanish coastguard and the other 49 of those who were on board are believed to have drowned.
Many things tend to go through your mind after hearing or reading about a tragedy like this: what exactly caused it, the lives lost, the terrible grief of the families affected – and, of course, our own good fortune at avoiding a similar fate.
All of those things occurred to me on this occasion. But it also got me thinking about the Princess of Asturias Prize – that esteemed honour conferred every year on an array of high-achieving individuals and organisations. Last month, the prize’s jury announced it was awarding its prestigious “Concord” accolade to the European Union. The jury highlighted EU values such as “freedom, human rights and solidarity,” values, it added, that “project hope for the future in uncertain times.”
The Princess of Asturias Prize jury weren’t to know that 49 people would die needlessly on the EU’s doorstep just a few weeks after this grand announcement. But they could have made a pretty safe bet that something similar was going to happen. All they had to do was look at the news.
The Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEAR), a refugee and migrant charity, estimates that more than 5,000 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe last year – an average of 14 people each day. It says 40,000 people have died making the crossing this century.
A damning new report by Amnesty International, “A Perfect Storm: The Failure of European Policies in the Central Mediterranean”, presents the EU not as a beacon of freedom, human rights and hope, but rather as a confused bungler when it comes to migration, especially via the frequently used departure point of Libya. The report says:
“This reckless European strategy is not just failing to deliver the desired outcome of stopping departures and preventing further loss of life, but is in fact exposing refugees and migrants to even greater risks at sea and, when intercepted, to disembarkation back in Libya, where they face horrific conditions in detention, torture and rape.”
It’s a pretty rum year for the Princess of Asturias jury to single out the EU for praise. Not only has the bloc’s failure to manage the Mediterranean migrant crisis hit new depths, but the UK has embarked on its confused, uncharted divorce from the Union and a French presidential election has been held in which the far-right candidate reached the second round.
Perhaps Leonor, the 11-year-old royal who lends her title to the annual prize, was the one who decided on this year’s Concord winner – it certainly looks like the decision of a child. But then a glance at the prize jury (24 out of 30 of who were middle-aged or elderly white males) suggests a group of people far removed from the reality of the capsizing zodiacs, inequality and populist politics that are among the EU’s current challenges.
It’s a strange thing, the Princess of Asturias Prize. Its categories include sport, the arts, communication and scientific research and its winners down the years have been a mixture of the richly deserving and the utterly baffling. The list of past winners is a sort of not-quite who’s-who of international big hitters, with the caveat that you’re more likely to win the prize if you’re Spanish.
For every sensible choice, there’s another seemingly random one: for every Philip Roth there’s a Santiago Calatrava; for every Michael Schumacher there’s a Fernando Alonso (who won it two years before the German); for every National Geographic Society there’s a Google. New York City Marathon, anyone? Yes, it won in 2014.
And now it’s the EU’s turn to accept this oddly-shaped gong. Let’s hope it and the prize jury take a long hard look at themselves over the next year.
In recent weeks I have had the honour of having my thoughts on Spanish politics and other news published on the excellent English-language website The Corner. My articles for the site can be found here and I will be posting links to them on this, my personal webpage. However, I will occasionally still post other, separate thoughts and musings on Spain and the Iberosphere on this site.
My most recent article for The Corner was about the apparently unkillable Pedro Sánchez…
It was the result Spain’s Socialist bigwigs had feared: a resounding victory for Pedro Sánchez in their party’s primary on Sunday, beating Andalusia premier Susana Díaz and former Basque premier Patxi López, to become leader for a second time.
Many had believed Sánchez was dead and buried last autumn, when his first spell as leader of the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) ended in acrimony. His ouster had been triggered by two poor general election results, followed by a refusal to abstain in a parliamentary investiture vote in order to allow Mariano Rajoy to form a new conservative administration
But this has been one of the unlikeliest political resurrections Spain has seen, made possible by an equally unlikely makeover on the part of Sánchez…(See article)
In April 2010, I wrote an article headlined “The rebirth of corruption”. At that time, there seemed to be an endless flow of corruption scandals in Spain, tainting the names of a long list of politicians and I wanted to understand why this problem had the country in its grip.
At the risk of coming across as a self-regarding buffoon, I have published most of that article again below, with the benefit of seven years’ hindsight. I’ve done this because, if anything, there seems to have been a re-rebirth of corruption since 2010 and the sordid revelations of back then pale in comparison with the torrent of scandal that continues to pour through Spain’s democratic arena. Gürtel, Púnica, Malaya, Brugal, Bárcenas, EREs, Operación Catalunya, Lezo: the dark underbelly of Spanish politics and the investigations it has prompted have generated a very peculiar lexicon.
I still stand by most of what I wrote back then, at least in terms of the causes of Spain’s corruption, which was the gist of the article. However, I do blush a bit on reading of how the problem was supposedly confined to local, and not national, politicians and how Spain does not have a national leader who is “constantly facing corruption allegations or ducking them with questionable political manoeuvres”.
It’s also interesting to note how, in the spring of 2010, Spain’s two-party system appeared to be in no danger of being broken up. The indignados protest movement would not happen for another year, Podemos wouldn’t arrive for another four – but the disgraceful behaviour of so many members of Spain’s political class are as responsible as anyone for both phenomena.
I think the most pertinent point in the article comes via Josep Ramoneda, who worries about how a “totalitarianism of indifference” might allow a culture of corruption to overwhelm politics and society. Or to put it another way: if you don’t want to be governed by bandits, don’t vote for them…
…At the end of 2009, Attorney General Cándido Conde-Pumpido revealed that 730 public officials were facing criminal investigation for corruption. He announced this figure as part of an effort to counter claims by the PP that it was being victimised by the justice system. The attorney general’s office, he insisted, was probing only 200 members of the PP, compared to 264 members of the Socialist Party. “The justice system doesn’t go after particular politicians, it just goes after the corrupt, wherever they are,” Conde-Pumpido said. “Unfortunately, they are everywhere.”
Political corruption is a vice commonly associated with developing countries. Dictatorships, banana republics and failed states are usually in its grip, but Spain is none of those things. It has a three-decade-old parliamentary democracy, has been modernised almost out of recognition in that time, and is a prominent member of the EU and NATO. Corruption scandals rocked the Socialist government of Felipe González in the early 1990s and eventually helped unseat him, but the country’s democracy was relatively callow then, and one party had dominated for most of that time. Why, then, has this problem returned with such a vengeance?
Sebastian Balfour, author of The Reinvention of Spain: Nation and Identity since Democracy, sees the decade-long construction boom that sustained the economy until 2008 as a major factor. At its peak, nearly a quarter of the EU’s new homes were being built in Spain, and the country’s laws ensured that local authorities –even in small towns – decided where and when those homes would be erected.
“The municipalities are the Cinderellas of the system because of the power of the autonomous regions,” Balfour, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at London’s LSE, told Iberosphere. “Local councils get very little funds, so they reclassify the land – either for the interests of the village… or for personal gain.”
That personal gain would come through bribes paid by constructors – in the form of a “commission” – to deem the land eligible for building on, even though it might be an area of natural beauty or even environmental interest. In the Madrid region alone, senior authorities in towns such as Majadahonda and Boadilla have been investigated for these kinds of abuses.
The post-Franco “barons”
The system of regional governance itself is also to blame. In Spain, there are 17 autonomous communities, each with its own particular relationship with the state. This semi-federal system, implemented with the post-dictatorship constitution, has allowed parties – and individuals, in some cases – to dominate politics in parts of Spain ever since.
Galicia, the conservative Popular Party’s greatest stronghold, is a good example. For 22 of the last 28 years the party has governed there and former Franco minister Manuel Fraga was regional leader for 15 years. This kind of heavily consolidated powerbase creates an environment where abuse is, if not inevitable, then certainly tempting.
“At the local level there are only a few key players and usually the same people are there for a long time – maybe 20 years or more. So if you want to do business you need to have good relations with those people,” says Ramón Pacheco Pardo, lecturer in Spanish Contemporary Politics at King’s College, London.
In the Gürtel case, those “good relations” meant systematic bribery and extravagant gifts for politicians, such as Louis Vuitton handbags and designer suits. It’s no coincidence that the regions where the Gürtel network seems to have embedded its claws deepest are Galicia, Valencia and Madrid, all longstanding PP fortresses.
For the Socialists, Andalusia has been its own voter stronghold, while in Catalonia the CiU conservative nationalists have dominated for much of the democratic period. In the Basque Country, the PNV nationalists were unseated last year after 30 years in power. Each of those parties has faced at least a number of corruption investigations in their “home” region.
A curious feature of the glut of graft cases that have erupted in recent years is how almost all of them originate at a local level, with very few national politicians being sullied. The Gürtel case may have implicated individuals who were close to the government of José María Aznar between 1996 and 2004, but the former prime minister himself was seen as an austere presence after the decadence of the González administration.
This, however, does not necessarily mean that national politics is totally clean, rather that abuses at that level rarely see the light of day, says Víctor Sampedro, a political analyst and editor of 13-M. Multitudes online. “The two main parties have got used to a collusion that is inherited from the dictatorship,” he explains. “There hasn’t been a reform of the judiciary or the police since the death of Franco in 1975. There’s a lack of control of the elites.”
This antiquated state structure, Sampedro believes, means Spain lacks sufficient separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary. Anyone who has followed the bizarre legal case against Judge Baltasar Garzón for investigating Franco-era crimes knows that the judiciary is heavily politicised. A strong third political party on a national level might shake things up. But no group has been able to challenge the Socialist-PP duopoly since González took power in 1982.
A career in politics
Blaming corruption on “cultural” factors is always contentious and can easily lead to lazy stereotyping, such as the notion that southern Mediterranean countries are somehow by nature more prone to breaking the law. However, the political culture of a country can undoubtedly help explain the phenomenon and is crucial in understanding the reasons for abuses by public officials.
In Spain, politicians commonly get involved in politics at an early age, often in their twenties, and remain there until they retire. This idea of politics as a career is more embedded than other countries, such as Britain, where the exercising of another profession outside the political arena has only recently come under scrutiny. This clearly means that financially, these career politicians are relying purely on their public service for income. It also means that they are that much more determined to cling to their posts, despite the scandals that surround them.
This was the case in Valencia last year, when the number two of the region’s PP government, Ricardo Costa, initially refused to step down despite orders to do so from party headquarters in Madrid due to his implication in the Gürtel case. This illustrated not only how regional politicians can shore up enough power to defy the national leadership, but also the lack of a resignation culture in Spain.
Pacheco Pardo compares this to the British MP expenses scandal, which has seen dozens of representatives refrain from running for re-election despite not technically breaking the law. “With the expenses scandal, MPs actually gave money back; in Spain this doesn’t happen,” he says. “If you look at the PP right now, they’re trying to defend those involved (in Gürtel) – and those involved are not stepping down.”
This determination to ride scandals is also related to a degree of tolerance on the part of voters. While left-leaning Spaniards shouted abuse at Costa and his boss Francisco Camps as they arrived at public events during the Gürtel storm last year, PP voters screamed their support, despite the headlines staining the reputations of the men.
“Leave the business to me”
Sampedro attributes this puzzling refusal of voters – particularly right-wing ones – to punish their representatives for corruption to what he calls “sociological Francoism.” “Franco indoctrinated a large section of society with the notion that the exercise of power implies a certain degree of corruption,” he says.
Perhaps the paradigm of this school of thought was Jesús Gil y Gil, a right-wing populist mayor of Marbella and president of Atlético Madrid football club. Frequently under investigation and indeed arrested in 2000 for embezzling his own club, Gil was nonetheless a popular figure among many Spaniards, particularly in Marbella. The implied philosophy of this politician, says Sampedro, was “leave the business to me, because under me we’re all going to do well.”
This chimes with a theory held by Balfour that the Spanish transition to democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s was never fully completed. At the time, the process was widely lauded as an example of cross-party consensus-building, as groups from both the Franco and Republican camps worked together to put the traumatic recent past behind them and create a democracy. The relative smoothness of the transition, however, left gaps.
“There was an incomplete assimilation of democratic rules and protocols – particularly by the right – due to an incomplete transition,” says Balfour.
Part of any healthy democracy, of course, is a rigorous and probing media. Few countries have both a press that is truly free of political influence and politicians who are not in thrall to the media (just think of New Labour and Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp), and Spain is particularly prone to the former vice. Newspapers, radio and television are, for the most part, heavily politicised and their reporting of corruption scandals reflects this. The right-wing daily El Mundo, for example, did its best to avoid covering the Gürtel case until the story became overwhelming. Incidentally, the paper’s editor, Pedro J. Ramírez, was part of the cabal of on-side journalists that surrounded Jaume Matas, the PP’s former Balearic premier before his fall from grace.
The ‘Berlusconización’ of Spain?
One way in which Spanish newspapers differ enormously from their counterparts in many other countries is their lack of investigative journalism. In the United States, a deep tradition of uncovering politicians’ crimes and misdemeanours – from Richard Nixon to John Edwards – is seen almost as a fourth power of state, helping ensure lawmakers don’t step out of line and exposing them when they do. In Britain, a frenzied tabloid press leads the charge to do the same, albeit amid the search for salacious celebrity news.
“To launch an investigation at a newspaper you need lots of people, lots of time and lots of money,” says a journalist who has worked at a Spanish national newspaper since the 1970s.
“It’s not just a lack of money in Spain, it’s a lack of interest – there is no tradition of investigative journalism.”
When newspapers do get an exclusive on a scandal, it is more often than not due to a leak from a member of the investigation rather than down to laborious legwork at the source of the case.
Novelist Juan Goytisolo has lamented what he calls the Berlusconización of Spain – a slide towards an Italian-style lack of respect for the law on the part of those who govern. That may be an exaggerated view. Spain does not have a national leader who is constantly facing corruption allegations or ducking them with questionable political manoeuvres; nor is it in the grip of a mafia. Its media, despite its faults, is less politicised than it was two decades ago. Moreover, its democracy is balanced and stable.
But the country does clearly have a major problem, one that its express-speed modernisation has failed to tackle adequately. The structure of the Spanish state, a massive housing boom, the remnants of a pre-democratic mindset and a lack of rigour in the media have all allowed corruption to flourish.
However, ordinary Spaniards will also have to look at themselves as they wonder how they can stop their country from resembling Berlusconi’s Italy. A large portion of the Spanish economy operates on the black market, reflecting a dangerous tolerance of corner-cutting. Writer and broadcaster Josep Ramoneda has warned that “the totalitarianism of indifference” threatens to govern the country. Its citizens can at least make sure that does not happen.
Hillary Clinton attended Donald Trump’s wedding; Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba once ran the 100 metres in under 11 seconds; most Muppets are left-handed; the northern leopard frog swallows its prey using its eyes.
And Pedro Sánchez could win the upcoming primary of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE).
It shouldn’t seem that outlandish. After all, he’s done it before. In 2014, the young economist came out of nowhere, gaining the support of Susana Díaz, the regional premier of Andalusia, and other powerful figures in the party, to score a surprise win.
But given the manner of his exit just five months ago, it does seem strange to think that Sánchez could be back in charge again by the summer.
His leadership ended last October in great part due to his insistence on refusing to help Mariano Rajoy’s conservatives form a new government, after months of post-electoral paralysis had created a damaging division in the PSOE. After an embarrassing, brutal and at times just plain weird weekend of self-mutilation, much of it seemingly orchestrated by a now-hostile Díaz and other senior figures, the party ditched Sánchez and installed a caretaker leadership, led by Asturian veteran Javier Fernández.
Five months on, the caretaker is still there. And so is Sánchez.
Against the wishes of the party machinery, he will compete in May’s leadership primary, against Díaz and former Basque premier, Patxi López. Relieved of the burden of being leader, Sánchez has been a liberated figure in recent months. Leather-jacketed and skinny-jeaned, he’s been driving round the country staging pro-Pedro rallies, none of them huge, but most of them passionate, at which he and his grass roots supporters can vent their anger at the state of Spain and, by proxy, the state of the PSOE.
It’s an appealing role: the groovy supply teacher who parachutes in, lets the class have fun and offers relief from the square old jobsworths.
Last week he was at it again, jogging through the streets of Melilla at dawn with local party members, cheerily tweeting: “Few things make you feel as good and recharged as running in the morning.” And he even gatecrashed Díaz’s back yard, Cádiz, at the weekend, squeezing in a fist-raised rendition of ‘The Internationale’
If all Spanish Socialist voters were to decide the next leader, Sánchez would seem to have it in the bag: a recent El Mundo poll gave him a 12-point lead over López and a 25-point lead over Díaz, who tends to generate a particularly passionate opposition among the party faithful outside her native Andalusia.
However, it is not those voters but the 180,000 party members who will decide, making the race highly uncertain, especially as nearly a quarter of them are Andalusian.
There are other obstacles to Sánchez’s route to re-taking the reins of the party. Perhaps the most obvious is that he has been there before and most of his two-and-a-bit-year tenure as leader was utterly unspectacular – until the compulsively watchable endgame, that is. He did initially bring a degree of freshness to the job, but it was rooted more in his youth (he’s now 45), tennis-coach looks and lack of baggage, rather than any genuinely new ideas.
Two record-breakingly poor general election performances helped seal his fate, although both were in difficult circumstances, given how Podemos and Ciudadanos had reshaped the political landscape.
By the end, Sánchez did make a lunge to the left, hoping that a governing alliance of some kind with Podemos, and possibly Catalan or Basque nationalists, would keep Rajoy out of power. But too many powerful voices (Felipe González, Díaz, El País newspaper) made that impossible. He like, the rest of the PSOE, was wrong-footed by the arrival of Podemos to the left, a variation on the populist challenge facing social democratic parties across Europe.
Now, Sánchez is suggesting he has learned from his mistakes and he is preaching a less inhibited form of Spanish Socialism, under the slogan “Yes means yes”, (a cunning inversion of the “No means no” he previously employed against Rajoy’s investiture). Reaching out to Podemos seems to be near the top of his list of priorities.
It’s easy to question, or ridicule, this new-found radicalism, and paint Sánchez as a poor man’s Pablo Iglesias, a low-cost Corbyn. But the new, unfettered Sánchez – Pedro 2.0 if you like – could well soon find himself back in command at party headquarters in Madrid.
He’s been called many things over the last few months. A zombie who doesn’t know he’s dead; an “unscrupulous fool” (El País); or even a pseudo-Sandinista. But nobody would dare describe Pedro Sánchez as unambitious.
As Pablo Iglesias pulled the elastic band off his ponytail and swished his famous mane behind him before addressing the party faithful in Madrid’s Vistalegre arena on Sunday, it was tempting to think that now, finally, everything was going to be alright.
Podemos’s second national assembly, held at the weekend, had been a triumph for party leader Iglesias. Months of conspiracy theories, snide comments, childish tweets, suggestive photographs and weird social media-hosted plots had all suggested the party was on the brink of disaster. But its leader’s performance in the slew of ballots prevented a disastrous splinter, while making it clearer than ever before that this is his party.
The leadership contest was merely a sideshow, Iglesias easily swiping aside the challenge of the little known Juan Moreno Yagüe. Instead, the focus was on the other votes, for organisational and policy platforms and, above all, the election of the 62-seat State Citizens’ Council (CCE), which governs the party. In all of those contests, the challenger was Íñigo Errejón, the party’s deputy leader and not long ago Iglesias’s political soulmate.
The story of the falling out between these two men is so packed full of incident and telling detail that I won’t recount it in full. But, in summary: Errejón is unhappy at the leftward lurch Podemos has performed over the last year, preferring to return to the party’s original incarnation, which saw it dodge the “leftist” label and appeal to outraged, disillusioned Spaniards across the spectrum, while keeping a high parliamentary profile; Iglesias, by contrast, wants to lead an overtly leftist party, a rabble-rousing outfit which can mobilise people on the streets and avoid being tarred by the dreaded “traditional party” brush.
The result of the CCE vote, which gave Iglesias allies 37 seats and Errejón’s camp only 23, would seem to resolve that argument. There was even a brief, slightly anaemic, embrace between the two men on stage before Iglesias acknowledged his win.
But it’s hard not to feel that something important has ended, leaving us scrabbling around for historical parallels. Felipe González and Alfonso Guerra is the most obvious one, but why not, too, José Mourinho and Iker Casillas? Or, for the less political, Simon & Garfunkel?
For Iglesias and Errejón, Vistalegre is their Bridge Over Troubled Waters: the moment when it becomes clear there is no way back for an extraordinarily fruitful partnership.
The question now is whether Podemos’s five million voters are a springboard or a ceiling. The hoo-ha of the last few months will strengthen the argument of those who claim it is destined to be the latter. And even before the Iglesias-Errejón rift became so poisonous, there were signs last year that the party was unsure where it was heading. That might explain Iglesias’s unconvincing and confusing drift into the centre ahead of the June general election, when he declared himself a social democrat and voiced admiration for Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. What were voters who had been drawn to Podemos’s early promise to break the PP-Socialist duopoly and everything it stood for to make of that?
Such equivocation has now been banished. What’s more, prowling behind the scenes will be Miguel Urbán, of the “Anticapitalista” wing, whose conversation with Iglesias in early 2014 sowed the seeds for the party’s creation. Now, Urbán has a seat on the CCE and the roar from activists on Sunday when his name was called out highlighted his growing status as the bearded, horn-rimmed conscience of Podemos, preaching unalloyed leftism, but also a more horizontal organisation that listens to its bases.
Where does all of this leave Errejón? He cast a forlorn figure at Vistalegre, his projects and personnel roundly defeated.
But the results showed that a third of the party supported him. What’s more, Errejón enjoys a 17-point lead over Iglesias among voters of all parties (Iglesias leads Errejón by 51 percent among Podemos voters, says the same study). At the age of 33, it’s hard to see him cast into irrelevance.
Iglesias had seemed to hint there would be no night of the long knives after his victory, no purge of errejonistas, when he repeated “unity and humility” over and over again in his acceptance speech. But the deputy leader now looks likely to lose his parliamentary spokesman post (which the party is keen to “feminise”) and possibly also lose his political secretary portfolio – the title that essentially made him co-leader. If that is the case, the “humility” will belong to Errejón alone and his camp’s discontent is unlikely to melt away.
Iglesias the great tactician, the Game of Thrones geek, scored an important win on Sunday. But nobody seriously believes that those votes and a half-hearted hug have solved the Podemos rift. It will take a lot more than that.
For well over two years, even before Pedro Sánchez took the reins of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) in 2014, Susana Díaz has been touted as the party’s leader-in-waiting, even though she has still not declared her intention to compete in the upcoming leadership primary. Patxi López, meanwhile, has thrown his hat into the ring already – too early, some fret.
As premier of the Andalusia region, Díaz is one of the country’s most powerful politicians – possibly Spain’s most powerful woman. And if you accept the commonly held wisdom that she was instrumental in Sánchez’s October ouster, that makes her an even more formidable figure. She enjoys the support of much of the PSOE old guard, including former prime ministers Felipe González and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, as well as many regional “barons”.
In Andalusia itself, she is, for the most part, utterly in command. The party’s biggest stronghold, she did well to hold off the Podemos threat there in 2015 and remain in power. Having seen her in action in the highlands of Cádiz (the province with the highest unemployment rate in Spain) during that election campaign, I can vouch for her regal self-assurance on home turf. But for a Socialist, winning elections in Andalusia and governing the region is a bit like coaching Bayern Munich football club: a huge responsibility, of course, but everything is tilted in your favour.
Governing the Basque Country as a Socialist, by contrast, is much more of a challenge. López should know. In 2009, he ended three decades of Basque nationalist rule, to form the unlikeliest of governments in the region – a partnership between the Socialists and the Popular Party (PP). It didn’t last very long, of course, but it wasn’t the first time that Basque politicians had given their counterparts elsewhere in Spain a lesson in realpolitik.
The differences between the two Socialist front-runners don’t end there. When the PSOE was teetering on the brink of self-destruction last autumn, torn apart by its indecision over whether to allow Mariano Rajoy to continue governing or hold out for yet another election, López was firmly in the latter, “No-means-no”, camp. He wore his support for the doomed Sánchez on his sleeve – not a strategically savvy move, but an admirably loyal one.
Díaz, meanwhile, was much more equivocal about whether or not the party should ease Rajoy’s investiture vote, ensuring she was in the limelight while tiptoeing round the word “abstain” as if it might bite her.
All of this may read like something of an attempt to sell López as the man to save his party, and Díaz as the dastardly career politician. Well, that’s not entirely the case. After all, in his brief stint as speaker of Congress last year López was disappointing, particularly when he nearly lost control of a boisterous chamber during Sánchez’s failed investiture. And the perception that he is, as the ever-perceptive Iván Redondo puts it, “the third way of the third way of the third way”, is more reassuring than inspiring for potential voters.
López is no rock star. His vague proposals thus far seem to suggest he broadly understands the need for an overhaul of Spanish Socialism in the context of the new political landscape, but he has neither the fiery divisiveness of Pablo Iglesias nor the Blairesque suavity of Albert Rivera. Instead, his unusual career has given him a lived-in, woody, workmanlike quality – he’s the kind of man from whom you might expect to buy paint or nails in a hardware store rather than see strolling the corridors of power. And having worked his way slowly up from the small-town politics of Portugalete, he finds himself, finally, in the running for the big job in Madrid.
It’s a long way between now and May’s primary contest. In the meantime, not only will Díaz almost certainly stand in López’s way, but Sánchez is still mulling a comeback (some have even wondered if López’s involvement in the primary was a ploy cooked up by the party to deter the unpredictable former leader). If Sánchez runs, he would probably hurt the Basque, given that their platforms would have much in common, likely handing Díaz the leadership.
At 57, López isn’t going to have many more chances like this. But then again, perhaps the Socialist Party has had enough, for the time being, of being led by apparently blessed forty-somethings who seem to parachute out of nowhere before breaking their legs on landing.
Cast your mind back 10 years, when Spain was on a roll. Its economy was growing at an unbelievable rate on the back of a property boom; second cars and second homes were being bought like they were going out of fashion; the unemployment rate had dropped to single figures; and prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had declared that Spain was in the “Champions League” of world economies.
What could possibly go wrong?
We all know the answer, but I’d like to look back at the publication, in 2007, of a remarkably prescient novel, by Rafael Chirbes, which seemed to intuit the disaster to come. Crematorio tells the story of a family in the fictional Valencian town of Misent. Told from the point of view of different characters, it frequently jumps back into the past. Yet this is a fiercely contemporary novel, which, instead of lionising the new Spain, delves under its shiny bonnet and examines the unsavoury, grimy motor that drives it.
Crematorio portrays the Spain of the middle of the last decade: pumped up by credit, giddy on consumerism and happy to wreck the skyline in the name of progress.
It’s not the easiest of reads, with Chirbes eschewing conventions such as dialogue and even paragraphs. Instead, each long chapter is a single torrent of words, told from the perspective of a particular character.
The most intricately painted of these is Rubén Bertomeu, a wealthy, 73-year-old property developer who ruminates on the recent death of his brother Matías, his family and his own eroded scruples. Rubén is a fascinatingly complex creation and, as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that he personifies the transformation of modern Spain. As an idealistic young architect he dreamed of creating beauty and improving lives, but over the years he has shed his principles, allowed his tastes to slide and destroyed the countryside in order to make money.
His cynical involvement in the property industry has contributed to the grim modernisation of his hometown, a place that has been turned into “an innocuous kind of theme park, a stupid holiday destination” on the Mediterranean coast.
While Rubén is at the centre of the novel, his family and acquaintances are also explored, like spokes on a wheel. He fondly remembers his dead first wife as he ponders his second marriage to a much younger woman, his uneasy relationships with his mother and his daughter and his estrangement from a local novelist who was once his best friend. Then there is a shady Russian business associate, and one of Rubén’s employees, who is caught up in a web of crime. It all makes for a demanding state-of-the nation story that reaches for the sky and frequently realises its lofty ambitions.
When Crematorio was published, the madness of Spain’s property boom was not yet fully apparent and nor was the corruption which helped drive it. It was only when the bubble burst that a seemingly endless torrent of graft scandals started to flow. Chirbes, however, saw it all clearly for what it was.
“[H]ere among the cranes that touch the sky, the derricks, the rubbish skips, the loading trucks and noisy diggers, you have to be discrete”, Rubén says, as he boasts of his ability to bully and bribe the local authorities into granting him permits to build on land earmarked for social use.
The academic Fernando Valls wrote that Chirbes sought to “tell the other version of our official history, the one that is hidden from us, giving dignity back to the losers” and also shining a light on “the failure, not just of politics, but of a large part of Spanish society.” His other acclaimed novels have worked their way through the last 75 years or so of Spanish history, from the legacy of Franco (La buena letra) and the democratic transition (La caída de Madrid), to the social devastation of the recent economic crisis (En la orilla).
As Valls put it, Chirbes was “a writer that no one could tame.” What a shame, then, that his 2015 death, at the age of 66, robbed us of one of the few people who was able to chronicle the private life of Spain, especially at a time when it has so many secrets to be told.