The Corner

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…

Pedro Sánchez 2.0

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)


Revisiting corruption: Why so damn much?

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.

Can Pedro Sánchez stick it to the man?


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.

Troubled waters

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.patxi

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.

Chirbes and the private life of Spain

“It takes a lot of energy to keep the flame of civilisation alight.” – Rafael Chirbes


chirbesCast 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.

Spain’s People of the Year

Amid the political upheaval, tragedy and celebrity deaths that 2016 saw around the world, Spain has had quite an unusual year of its own. Most notably, the December 2015 general election was followed by 10 months of unprecedented political uncertainty during which the country did not have a government. Given that these developments overshadowed the entire year, my five-strong list of Spain’s people of 2016 is dominated by political figures. Some have over-achieved, while one, in particular, had a year to forget. But all have been, in their different ways, individuals who have had a major impact on Spanish life. There is a glaring lack of women on the list, an indictment of Spanish front-line politics (only four out of 17 regional premiers and none of the main parties’ leaders are female). But the coming year could well see the likes of deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría and Andalusian Socialist boss Susana Díaz step further into the limelight.

In ascending order, here are my Spanish People of the Year: 

  1. Pedro Sánchez

“Is Pedro Sánchez the Socialist messiah, or just a zombie who doesn’t realise he’s dead?” asked El Español newspaper a few weeks ago. It was a fair question. Less than two months earlier, he had been overthrown as Socialist Party (PSOE) leader in one of the messiest displays of political self-mutilation Spain has seen in its democratic era.

pedro-sanchezSánchez’s 2016, like that of most frontline Spanish politicians, was dominated by the fallout of the December 2015 election and the June re-run that followed it, with all the plotting, bridge-building and tearing-out-of-hair those months involved. His downfall was spun by many critics in the party as the result of his willingness to sidle up to Podemos and nationalists in a doomed bid to form a rag-tag leftist governing coalition. But in reality, he had always been viewed with suspicion by the PSOE’s powerbrokers, particularly former prime minister Felipe González and Andalusia premier Susana Díaz, both of whom seem to have been responsible for unleashing the dogs.

Since his ouster, a revisionist version of events has cast Sánchez as the equivalent of the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn: an old-fashioned lefty trying to steer the party back to its principles. The 44-year-old economist himself has been all too happy to encourage such talk. “If the PSOE wants to be a serious governing party, it has to speak directly to Podemos, work alongside it in order to carry out the transformation and political change that the country needs,” he told La Sexta television, shortly after his resignation. To which it’s tempting to reply: Where was that boldness when you were in charge, Comrade? During the more than two years he led the party, it was hard to discern a clear Sánchez-inspired vision for Spain, beyond the fog of strategy and party intrigue.

Now he appears to be mounting a comeback. Sánchez 2.0 is driving round the country trying to drum up support for his vaguely subversive, apparently more radical, platform, a move that is inevitably winding up the PSOE’s bigwigs. He may never get his hands on the reins of power again, but Pedro Sánchez could at least make things uncomfortable for Díaz, whom many expect to walk into the party leadership job in the spring.

No, Sánchez is not a messiah, but this zombie isn’t entirely dead yet.


  1. Íñigo Errejón

For a while, Íñigo Errejón was one half of the country’s most famous and fruitful double act. As the measured, slightly geeky deputy leader of Podemos, he seemed the ideal foil for the fiery Pablo Iglesias. Together, they plotted their party’s meteoric rise, from its inception in 2014, to the December 2015 general election, when it won 69 seats in Congress.

But in the uncertain months that followed, cracks in their relationship started to show. One of the year’s most memorable moments was when Errejón’s nodding support for Iglesias during a congressional debate melted into disbelief as the Podemos leader gratuitously reminded the Socialist Party that its hands were stained with the “quicklime” of state terrorism.

errejonThe party’s deputy leader was never convinced of the subsequent decision to team up with the communist-led United Left (IU), fearing the move would alienate Podemos’s more moderate electorate (arguably a concern that was borne out by the June election, when Podemos lost hundreds of thousands of votes).

In September, the disagreements between Iglesias and Errejón over strategy started spilling onto Twitter. “We already scare the powerful, that’s not the challenge,” Errejón tweeted in response to an Iglesias outburst. “[The challenge] is to seduce that part of our country that suffers, but which still doesn’t trust us.” Such clashes between the erstwhile Lennon and McCartney of the Spanish left seem to have dominated Podemos’s presence in the media and convey the image of a party on the verge of either re-discovering itself or of splintering apart.

Amid the confusion and despite his callow, Joe 90 image, Errejón has proven himself a formidable voice in national politics and a powerful influence inside his party.


  1. Zinedine Zidane

What a difference a year can make. In January, Real Madrid were in a slump. Led by the unpopular Rafa Benítez, they were third in the league and playing like a bunch of strangers. When Benítez was sacked to make way for “B” team coach Zinedine Zidane, it appeared from many angles to be a desperate move. The Frenchman had limited coaching credibility and his promotion looked like a roll of the dice based purely on his aura as a player. zinedine_zidane_20official

When Real Madrid lost at home to Atlético in February, apparently surrendering the league, Zizou started to look like yet another dead man walking from the most precarious job in football. And yet, after pulling themselves together since then, his players have put together an unbeaten run of 37 games and counting, which includes the Champions League and World Club titles.

The tonsured hero who not so long ago lit up the Bernabéu as a player now prowls the touchline, bald as a coot and wrapped in a stylish long coat. His success is sheer luck, some say. Anyone could coach a group of such talented superstars, mutter others. Whatever the secret of Zidane’s success, this purple patch will eventually have to come to an end and, let’s face it, some of his charges are hardly ambassadors for the game. But in the meantime, let’s enjoy the fact that such a graceful, modest man is flourishing in such a notoriously difficult post.


  1. Carles Puigdemont

Thrown into the role of Catalan regional premier almost by chance, Carles Puigdemont has spent the last year bang in the middle of Spain’s deepest political crisis of recent times. The nationalist former mayor of Girona was plucked from near-obscurity in January to replace Artur Mas, a move that narrowly managed to salvage the separatist coalition which has been pushing for independence from Spain.

puigdemontMany expected Puigdemont, who is the closest thing the Catalan secessionist project has to a figurehead, to be little more than a Mas puppet. But the mop-topped premier is different to his predecessor in two crucial ways: firstly, he is a life-long advocate of independence for Catalonia, unlike the “convert” Mas; and secondly, like many natives of Girona, he is known for a willingness to hear the other side’s point of view.

So far, that ability to negotiate has rarely been used on the unionists in Madrid. Instead, Puigdemont has been struggling to keep the more radical elements of the Catalan coalition on board as he pushes ahead with the independence “roadmap”. Meanwhile, his region has been facing seemingly endless legal action from the Spanish state – including a court ruling against Catalonia’s bullfighting ban, the arrests of activists who burned photos of the king, and a judicial summons for Catalan parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell.

As the separatist front’s ambitious objective of an autumn referendum on independence comes into view, expect plenty more such conflicts. The Spanish government claims it now wants to reach out to Catalan nationalists, a move which could deflate separatist feeling somewhat. But for the region’s premier, a longstanding dream has become feasible.


  1. Mariano Rajoy

Going into the December 2015 general election, who would have expected Mariano Rajoy to win that vote and its re-run, stare down his critics and make minimal concessions before managing to form a new government in October? Yet he has done all those things, in the process challenging the notion that Spain has embraced a new political era.rajoy

The leader of the Popular Party (PP) had arguably the most satisfying year of his career in 2016, a success built on his remarkable ability to remain still. Perhaps the most radical decision by this three-toed sloth of a politician came soon after winning the 2015 election – and characteristically it was a decision based on not taking the initiative – when he became the first election winner ever to decline the monarch’s offer to form a new government. And yet it proved a sound decision as his Socialist rival Sánchez got bogged down in his own attempts to form a coalition.

In February, Rajoy had been caught on camera telling UK prime minister David Cameron that “the most likely outcome is that there will be new elections on June 26”, and so he played his long game accordingly. Ignoring calls to step aside and unblock the stalemate, Rajoy sat tight, spoke disdainfully of the opposition’s attempts to offer an alternative and found himself making gains in the election’s re-run as many voters fled the unknown quantities of Ciudadanos and Podemos and shunned the increasingly divided Socialists.

These developments have led some commentators to paint Rajoy as a master strategist, cleverly plotting his adversaries’ downfall. That might be a little generous, given how the weakness and fragility of the rival parties and the rigidity of his own PP clearly favoured him. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Rajoy’s insistence on clinging to his party’s leadership without making an early bid to form a new administration was a major reason why Spain went 10 months without a government this year. His actions undoubtedly benefitted his personal position, but not the country’s interests.

Catalonia’s odd couple


“We’re kingmakers and we have the right to bring down the government when we like and call new elections.” – Quim Arufat (CUP)


The unlikely marriage between the mainstream separatists of Junts pel Sí and the radical Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) in Catalonia has been one of the most intriguing and remarkable political developments of recent months in Spain. Formed in the wake of the September 2015 Catalan election, this secessionist front has enabled the parties that make up Junts pel Sí  – the former Convergència and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) – to govern the region while pushing ahead with the procés, the roadmap towards an independence state.

With only 10 seats in the Catalan parliament, the anti-capitalists of the CUP are the junior partner. But they are also holding the whole thing together.

It was never going to be easy. Convergència (or PDECat, to give it its post-rebrand name) is a centre-right party which has carried out some of the heaviest spending cuts Spain has seen in recent years. It has a fondness for privatisation and, perhaps most relevantly, it bears the legacy of the now-disgraced Jordi Pujol, who hid a fortune in Andorra throughout his long tenure as Catalan premier.

That clearly makes it an uncomfortable bedfellow for the CUP, a party whose slogan is “independència, socialisme, feminisme.”

“It’s an extraordinary situation, it isn’t normal,” the CUP’s Quim Arrufat told me of the partnership earlier this year. “It doesn’t happen in any other country: anti-capitalists agreeing on some points with Christian democrats because of a lack of sovereignty.”

Lately, that relationship has been severely tested. First there was the inevitable obstacle of the 2017 Catalan budget, with the CUP pressing for more emphasis on social justice, but then came some less predictable, but more inflammatory, episodes.

In November, the CUP mayor of the small town of Berga, Montse Venturós, was arrested after failing to appear in court for having hung the independence flag from her town hall. The independence movement as a whole was swift to present her as a martyr figure (see picture above), burning at the stake of the Spanish state’s “judicialisation” of a political issue. But cracks in the separatist front were starting to show, with Venturos’s lawyer berating the Junts pel Sí regional government for allowing the Mossos, the Catalan police, to carry out the arrest.

“I wouldn’t say that we want [independence] more than other parties, but we have different ways of working,” Venturós told me when I met her in Berga recently. She added that “it’s clear that we have different ways of working.”

Similarly, the more recent furore sparked by several CUP members’ burning and tearing up of photos of members of the royal family has exposed those “different ways of working”. Again, the Mossos, who carried out the arrests of several of those involved, have been in the eye of the storm, because they are under the command of the Catalan, rather than the central, government.

That regional administration supposedly tolerates, if not approves of, such acts of rebellion. After all, Junts pel Sí has been leading a campaign of civil disobedience against the rules and rulings of the Spanish state for over a year now, not to mention its staging of the unlawful 2014 independence referendum, which has seen several senior figures in the coalition face legal proceedings.

But there’s only so much rebellion that Junts pel Sí can handle and these episodes of “direct action” seem to be trying its patience. The CUP was always destined to be the unruly younger brother, rolling his eyes and huffing at the squareness of his older sibling. But the downside of this relationship now seems to be worrying Junts pel Sí. Santiago Vidal, a senator for ERC (also in Junts pel Sí), told me that the CUP “in many ways, don’t help” the independence cause because they undermine the moderate image the movement is trying to cultivate, as well as rubbing their partners up the wrong way.

The appearance of apparent death threats against senior Convergència politicians painted on the wall of the party’s offices in Horta Guinardó in recent days has given all this intrigue an ugly spin. And it couldn’t be a better time for the Spanish government to embark on its so-called “operation dialogue”, a brazen attempt to repair some of the bridges to Catalonia which it has so gleefully trashed over the last five years.

With no elections on the horizon, Mariano Rajoy can tentatively leave behind the rigid unionism which helped secure him electoral success while deepening the country’s territorial crisis. If his charm offensive/cynical ploy (take your pick) does manage to make moderate Catalans think twice about secession, then you can bet the tensions between Junts pel Sí and the CUP are only just getting started. And if so, the biggest obstacle to Catalan independence isn’t in the Madrid courts, it’s in the fragility of the separatist front.

Tramping the dirt down

“Because there’s one thing I know I’d like to live / long enough to savour / That’s when they finally put you in the ground / I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.” – Elvis Costello


Shortly after the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013, Elvis Costello caused a stir by continuing to play his vitriolic song about the former prime minister, ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, at concerts. He was being crass and disrespectful, critics claimed. Costello responded by insisting he wasn’t celebrating Thatcher’s death, but that he still felt the same way about her policies. “I don’t feel vindicated,” he said. “I didn’t personally kill her.”

Two deaths in recent days have reminded me of this episode: that of Fidel Castro and also that of former Valencia mayor Rita Barberá. I’m not going to stretch the imagination by drawing parallels between the two (divisive figures with big personalities and authoritarian tendencies etc…) but it has been fascinating and instructive to watch the impact their deaths have had in Spain, particularly that of Barberá, who died of a heart attack in a Madrid hotel.

Having governed Valencia for a quarter of a century and been at the heart of the Popular Party’s power structure for many years, she was, in her heyday, a flamboyant, larger-than-life and autocratic figure, whose at times comical brashness and self-confidence reflected the fortunes of her city. “Rita believed that she was Valencia and that Valencia was her,” noted her biographer (suggesting that maybe those Fidel comparisons aren’t such a stretch after all).

Yet Barberá’s stock, like that of her city, would eventually plummet, dragged down by the weight of ludicrous overspending and a litany of corruption scandals. A money laundering case in which the former mayor was being investigated finally saw her pushed out of the PP in September, although she clung to her seat in the Senate. Her sidelining had seemed to be driven by younger figures in the party, such as Pablo Casado and Javier Maroto, whose personal loyalties to Barberá were trumped by their desperation to shake off the PP’s corrupt image. Many accounts suggest she had become something of a pariah for the PP, politically marginalised and shunned at social events as the corruption probe hung over her.

In recent weeks an image had therefore been conjured up of Barberá hiding away in forlorn exile, abandoned by friends, peering at the world from behind closed blinds – a Yoda figure, shuffling around the swamp in a galaxy far away.

And it was this image that many senior PP politicians have invoked as they have embarked on a very strange, public guilt trip. “Each person will have on his conscience the barbarities that he has said about Barberá, without any proof whatsoever,” said Justice Minister Rafael Catalá, who seemed to be questioning the evidence gathered by the anti-corruption office.

Many others have expressed similar sentiments, with the PP’s blame-scattergun sometimes aiming inside the party tent, but mainly beyond. Twitter users, said PP deputy Celia Villalobos, “condemned her to death.” PP spokesman Rafael Hernando, meanwhile, denied any kind of regret within the PP at Barberá’s treatment. Instead, he employed a bewildering array of metaphors to blame the “hyenas” of the media who had “lynched” her and “turned her into a shooting gallery”.

Podemos’s refusal to take part in a one-minute silent tribute to Barberá in Congress meant that party avoided charges of hypocrisy, but it unwittingly gave the PP a handy alibi: Look, they’re treating her even worse than we did.

This whole episode seems to have told us a lot about Spain’s attitude to death, as well as its relationship with corruption and the media.

The passing of any public figure here tends to provoke a particularly radical, and often fanciful, reappraisal of the deceased. The example of Jesús Gil y Gil springs to mind. After dying in 2004, the oafish, scandal-plagued former mayor of Marbella was talked about more as a national treasure rather than a national disgrace.

And while Barberá’s chequered career has been given a frantic makeover in recent days, those who reported on her alleged misdemeanours have been the target of vitriol. Gran Wyoming, the current affairs comic who is always more watchable when speaking seriously rather than reeling off scripted jokes, issued a timely warning that some of Barberá’s erstwhile friends were “taking advantage of the tragedy to take aim at certain media whose duty is to report, among other things, corruption cases, which are of interest to all Spaniards.”

As Elvis Costello would, I am sure, agree: being dead doesn’t make you right.





“regenerate v. 1 Bring or come into renewed existence; generate again. 2 Improve the moral condition of. 3 Impart new, more vigorous, and spiritually greater life to (a person or institution etc.). 4 Reform oneself.”

“Regeneration” is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Jorge Fernández Díaz and his recent bumpy ride from the interior ministry to the chairmanship of the public complaints committee in Congress.

On the contrary, the 66-year-old has become almost a synonym for the kind of old-school political caste that Podemos and others on the Spanish New Left abhor. As interior minister in Mariano Rajoy’s first term, his blinking, what’s-the-world-coming-to demeanour and penchant for belted jackets gave him the air of someone angrily at odds with the 21st century.

This is the man who, as head of one of the country’s most important ministries, repeatedly awarded a top police medal to the Holy Virgin in Málaga; the man who on one occasion compared abortion to Eta terrorism.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have read, over the last few days, that Fernández Díaz is “a close friend of Mariano Rajoy”. The suggestion is that this is the only possible way to explain why he remained in the political front line so long and why the prime minister has tried to keep him there, despite mounting resistance.

To recap: Fernández Díaz lost the interior ministry portfolio when Rajoy announced his new Cabinet last month. This was not surprising, given that in June, audio recordings had emerged apparently showing the then-minister conspiring to smear Catalan independence leaders with fabricated corruption cases. Amid his own protestations that he is the victim of some form of witch hunt, Fernández Díaz now faces a congressional probe into his conduct.

But instead of silently slipping away from the limelight, Rajoy put Fernández Díaz forward as his candidate to chair the congressional foreign affairs committee. Despite an outcry on the part of Podemos and others on the left that the tainted former minister should be rewarded with such a prestigious job, he seemed to have enough backing to secure it. But the Socialists, after a last-minute panic attack, withdrew their support, reneging on a deal with the governing Popular Party (PP). Fernández Díaz was left clutching the short straw: the chairmanship of the public complaints committee, an appointment which does not require the approval of other parties.

It’s been a strange, irritating and sometimes vaguely comical episode which has highlighted Spain’s new-found fragmentation: it managed to make the PP and Ciudadanos look resistant to the political new broom, the Socialists indecisive and Podemos reliably outraged and rigid. But Fernández-gate also neatly reflects Spain’s current difficulties in embracing the slippery concept of “regeneration”.

“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born,” noted Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political theorist so fondly quoted by Podemos. And similarly, while Spain’s old two-party politics has been dying since last year’s regional and municipal elections, Rajoy’s return to power confirms that while the new world of transparency and a less aloof politics may be on its way, it hasn’t yet quite seen the light of day.

Fernández Díaz’s unedifying journey of the last few days was not a total defeat for him or Rajoy. After all, he did still end up heading a committee, even if it was a decidedly unglamorous one. But as well as confirming that the prime minister has a tin ear for the public mood, this story showed how hard it is proving to usher in the much trumpeted era of “new politics”.

The fact that a politician who appears to have put much of his taxpayer-funded time and money into smearing political opponents is even considered to chair any congressional committee is surely enough to rile even the most moderate Spaniards.

And yet, something is changing. It’s hard to imagine José Manuel Soria, who resigned as industry minister in April after his involvement in the Panama Papers was exposed, stepping down for the same reason just a few years ago. A political uproar subsequently prevented him from taking a plumb job at the World Bank in September at Rajoy’s blinkered behest. The mayor of Granada, José Torres Hurtado, also resigned in April due to his links to a property scandal.

Let’s not pretend this is a golden era of Spanish transparency. But the public and parliamentary mood has shifted, demanding more accountability of public figures, even though the system they operate in has hardly changed.

So Fernández Díaz’s shuffling, grumbling sort-of exit from the political arena this week could be counted as progress in the country’s long slog away from opacity and impunity. But it’s going to take a lot more than that before Spaniards can pop open the Cava and shout “regeneration!” without smirking.