A tight race ahead in Spain’s historic election

A tight race ahead in Spain’s historic election

A glance at opinion polls in Spanish newspapers for the past few months would convince you that nobody really has any clue what will happen the day after Spaniards go to the polls to elect their new prime minister in just under three week’s time on 20th December.

It is without doubt the start of a new political era in Spain – a four-horse race ending the to-ing and fro-ing between the two traditional socialist and conservative parties, PSOE and PP. But anything more than a sketchy outline and you’re playing the fickle game of political predictions.

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Political deadlock in the polls between Spain’s ruling conservatives, the Socialist opposition and centre-right newcomer Ciudadanos

The new centre-right Ciudadanos and leftist Podemos parties have everything to gain in December’s vote as they fight for their first seats in parliament’s lower house after great successes in European and local elections. Are they really the new mainstream left and right of politics – or just a protest vote content with pointing the finger at previous governments?

Earlier tonight, the leaders of three of the parties battled it out in an online debate hosted by Spain’s leading newspaper El País.

That’s right – three leaders, not four. Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy has made no secret of the fact he dislikes debates, especially against the two new political kids on the block.

He says to Spaniards that he doesn’t need to debate with his younger and far less experienced rivals. It’s a tactic to set himself out of the crowd that may just work out.

So, the debate empty chaired Rajoy. Instead, he appeared on Spanish news with a one-on-one political grilling. But the debate continued despite this elephant in the room.

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Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the absent leader in tonight’s debate

What Spaniards will be doing in the next few weeks is testing the credibility of their political leader hopefuls, as they do the rounds on television shows and appear at noisy campaign rallies.

How far will these untried and untested new parties stand up to scrutiny and be able to govern a nation of over 40 million, managing its economic recovery and the existential debate of Spain given the calls for independence in Catalonia?

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has played a clever game in campaigning on Spain’s unity and his government’s work in steadying the ship of the economy.

He’s hoping that will stand up to his political rivals who talk of proposals and solutions without ever having been in power.

At the same time, the spectre of corruption scandals and a poor record in solving Spain’s massive unemployment problem – at 22 per cent – will be unavoidable.

What was apparent from tonight’s debate was the unanimity in building a “new politics”. What was also clear is that there are many different proposals.

French ballot box

It went right down to Spain’s response to ISIS. Both PSOE and Ciudadanos insisted Spain couldn’t be left out of the Western alliance to bomb Islamic State. Podemos’ policy, meanwhile, stuck out like a sore thumb. Iglesias asked – what did bombs solve in Iraq or Libya? He insisted the group’s arms and finances had to be hit instead.

What is certain is that Spain is likely to be in political deadlock come the end of the year. No one party at the moment has a majority and a coalition agreement of some kind will probably need to be found.

But any pact has already been ruled out by Ciudadanos, whose leader Albert Rivera says he won’t prop up any party, instead holding them account in an opposition role.

Rivera is campaigning on a break with what the “traditional” parties have done to Spain.

They want to create a “new era”, a “new project” for the country. It’s a move which has caused their share of the vote to rocket, as the hopes of Podemos have dipped, peaking far too soon.

The climate of uncertainty about the future of Spain on a map- read the independence movement in Catalonia – raises the debate around Spain’s constitution, drawn up in 1978 and which has been left untouched since the transition to democracy following the death of Franco.

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Spain’s 1978 Constitution, written three years after the death of Franco

Parties agreed about reforming it, but differences lie in where to draw the line on independence. The leaders talked of reform, dialogue, political regeneration, a new Spain. It makes for so many soundbites.

A poll published on Sunday showed a three-way tie between the ruling PP party, the Socialist opposition and newcomer Ciudadanos, the squiggly lines converging to a single point – 22 per cent – redrawing the political map.

It’s just another clue that many in Spain still don’t know who to turn to, but what we do know is that they have turned away from the traditional parties – in their droves.

Will 20th December 2015 be remembered for the end of “old” politics and the start of a new page for Spain, or more of the same – for good or for bad?

A country with many economic, social and political challenges, it is a moment of history in the making.

More: A look at the demographics behind Spanish opinion polls – El Español (in Spanish)

 

 

What next for Paris?

What next for Paris?

A nation still in mourning after Friday’s attacks, with many in Paris unsure what will happen next – this the second attack on the city this year, targeting those who were simply enjoying daily life at a concert or restaurant.

So what does the future hold for the capital and the rest of France?

Using clips from BBC radio, I’ve made a 3-minute package asking how Paris and France can get back to normal.

 

The Catalan independence cataclysm

The Catalan independence cataclysm

Forget for a moment the huge hype and expectation surrounding today. Hearing the calls from the Catalan parliament for a declaration of independence, the first steps towards a new European state and then a constitutional block from Madrid, you’d think it nothing out of the ordinary for a secessionist movement with more momentum than ever before.

The language was just as uncompromising and provocative, talking of the “democratic disconnection” of Catalonia from the rest of Spain.

The Catalan parliament’s approval of a move towards independence within 18 months was met with the waving of Catalan senyera flags, some deputies on their feet in applause, a minority sober in defeat instead waving the national Spanish flag. Yet proceedings were noticeably much more muted than in the past.

Today’s constitutional earthquake will send tremors all the way to Madrid as Barcelona hastily embarks on setting up state institutions such as an independent social security system and tax authority within just thirty days.

But have things really changed in Catalonia as to the likelihood of independence?

What will follow is the next episode in the strained relationship between this region and the Madrid government, who will slap down the rules of the Constitution, with the courts preparing a case against leaders in Barcelona.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appeared in front of cameras minutes after the vote repeating that “the government will not allow this to continue” and saying he will use all legal and political means at his disposal to put a stop to the process.

The inconstitutional snub was echoed by Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez, who will meet Rajoy on Tuesday to discuss their counter-attack.

Sánchez said: “The majority of Catalans don’t want secession. Breaking the law is denying democracy.”

Regardless, the document says it will ignore any such threats from instutitions of the Spanish state, including the constitutional court.

The embattled Catalan President, Artur Mas
The embattled Catalan President, Artur Mas

The extraordinary events in the Catalan parliament in Barcelona also addressed the elephant in the room – the future of president Artur Mas, whose political future looks to be hanging in the balance.

The CUP, the coalition partner of Junts Pel Sí, the pro-independence coalition who won a majority in September’s elections oppose Mr Mas serving a third term as President.

Negotiations with the leftist,  anti-establishment, anti-EU party haven’t got very far since the elections, but Mas is trying his best to win them over with policy sweeteners in what critics call a vanity project.

They are calling for another leader to be appointed, perhaps Junts Pel Sí leader Raul Romeva. But if an agreement isn’t found, yet more elections will have to be called for March next year.

Mas has embodied the defiant push for Catalan independence, buoyed by a pro-independence win in the September elections on a seat basis, but falling short of a majority he would have needed in a proper referendum – pro-independence parties won 47.8 per cent of the vote.

Nonetheless, beginning his address to the Parlament, he said the ballot boxes had spoken, legitimising the majority vote that was to come.

Critics of Mas say he has isolated himself from Catalan public opinion, which evidently remains deeply divided on the issue of secession. Business leaders too say that with his majority only assured by the CUP party, he has handed the independence movement to leftist radicals.

Anti-independence party Ciudadanos, the second-largest party in the Catalan parliament that looks set to rock the boat in Spain’s general election on 20th December, ironically said that ongoing cases of corruption – of which Mr Mas is part – have nothing to do with the process.

They warned today’s events were the greatest threat to Spain’s democracy for the past thirty years.

The last election is only as important as the next. With the make-up of Spain’s next government unclear and with coalition agreements expected to extend well into January, parties of all colours are exploiting the Catalan situation to gain votes.

Aside from Spain’s economic recovery, the unity of Spain is a key election trump card, especially for Rajoy. He wants to be seen as the leader who stands for stability and managing the breakaway Catalan region.

The constitutional fallout from the defiance on show could mean tough financial sanctions – even on individual leaders, which could potentially mean prison sentences.

It could also sour any potential negotiations between leaders in Catalonia and the next Spanish government.

Pro-independence politicians remain more defiant and determined than ever. For Madrid, it’s another case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

This struggle of democracy against democracy is a long way from ending.

A question of taste for Charlie Hebdo

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The controversial Charlie Hebdo this week, criticised by the Kremlin. Credit: Charlie Hebdo

Just a few weeks ago, outgoing columnist at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Patrick Pelloux,  exclaimed: “Charlie Hebdo is dead”.

You would hardly think so after seeing the magazine’s two cartoons this week illustrating last Saturday’s downing of a Russian passenger flight over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, which killed 224 people.

The first depicted the smoking wreckage of the plane and a scattering of body parts surrounding a passenger’s skull wearing sunglasses which pointed to the “the dangers of Russian low-cost flights”. It was a gory, unforgiving image, even in cartoon form.

The other showed the plane’s debris – including broken bits of wings and the body of a passenger – falling on an Islamic State militant with the caption, “The Russian air force intensifies its air strikes”, after the country started its military operation at the end of September in an effort to prop up the Assad regime.

The Kremlin took no time at all in addressing the media on Friday to denounce the cartoons as “pure blasphemy”.

A spokesman from the Russian foreign ministry said they had nothing to do with democracy or freedom of expression, deeming the cartoons “unacceptable”.

Meanwhile, social media in Russia has been in uproar, with the hashtag “I am not Charlie” used to criticise the poor taste of the cartoons.

One tweet read: “Insane cynicism and a mockery of the memory of the victims of this terrible tragedy.”

The graphic depiction just under a week after Russia’s most deadly terrorist attack on its own people predictably touched a nerve. One of the country’s most popular social networks – VK – said the cartoons had been the most discussed topic among its 100 million active users.

Russian politicians have also taken to the airwaves to echo the Kremlin’s criticism.

This is a magazine which is continuing to sharpen its teeth and irreverence, nine months after gunmen stormed the magazine’s offices shooting twelve people dead.

Its editor-in-chief, Gérard Biard, came to the defence of the questionable taste of the cartoons. He said: “the Kremlin was using Charlie Hebdo to make a point.”

“They want to draw attention to two miserable cartoons and spark a controversy that’s unwarranted. It’s the usual manipulation of a totalitarian power”, he told AFP.

“We respect more values than those in power in Russia, like democracy, secularism and freedom of expression”, Biard said.

The terrorist attack back in January was seen as an attempt to threaten one of France’s most basic principles – freedom of expression, which the magazine displays in every issue.

It was a value that the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius defended on Friday with direct reference to this week’s controversial Charlie cartoons.

Fabius said: “Freedom of expression is a pillar of French democracy. There is no question of touching it.”

He defended the magazine’s illustrations, saying front covers of Charlie Hebdo may offend other countries, but in France – where there are different religious and social contexts – “they don’t pose any problems”.

The magazine has turned to political satire and current affairs for inspiration for its front page, steering clear of sensitive religious cartoons. Some worry this is self-censorship creeping into the magazine.

Most recently in the firing line has been President François Hollande’s make-or-break climate conference later this month in Paris, which commentators say will significantly shape his political legacy. This unpopular president is an easy target for derision, seen as flip-flopping on running the country.

Ten years after heavy rioting across the country, Charlie Hebdo said the next firestarter would be far-right Front National party leader Marine Le Pen – a frequent front cover star – in the presidential elections in 2017.

The cover of a recent edition of Charlie Hebdo. It reads:
The cover of a recent edition of Charlie Hebdo. It reads: “Welcome, migrants! You’re at home here!”
Credit: Charlie Hebdo.

The flow of migrants to Europe has been a frequent cover story this year in a typically imaginative style. One September issue shows former news anchor Claire Chazal, who says ISIS treats her better than her employer after she was fired from her job.

Another depicts a migrant who had come to France to learn Latin, poking fun at controversial school reforms.

The magazine is now on a more even footing, through the weight of trauma among its staff is never too far from the surface.

Sales are up and it has recently moved into new offices, but so are the death threats. Staff live under around-the-clock protection by police and bodyguards.

Infighting and depression have spread among the survivors of January’s attack, arguing over finances and the magazine’s future as millions pour into its coffers.

Just last month, Charlie Hebdo relaunched its website, offering readers a daily cartoon on all manner of subjects.

The site is even venturing beyond France’s borders with an English-language section of some of its editorials.

Pelloux, a columnist who left the magazine last month, citing fatigue said: “A part of us has gone with the attacks.”

At the beginning of this year, Charlie Hebdo was ripped apart from the inside.

Its resistance to worldwide pressure and controversy, they hope, won’t allow the magazine to simply fade away.