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)

 

 

A false start for France’s presidential election

A false start for France’s presidential election

The battle lines are drawn in a hotly contested presidential election – that’s a year and a half away.

How far France swings to the centre-right or the extreme right will be the big headline when the country goes to the polls in spring 2017.

The second – how big the defeat for France’s most unpopular president, François Hollande. He can do little more than survive the political storm to come, as the economy stutters along. However, there are encouraging signs from business and confidence as the effects of controversial reforms start to bear fruit.

That’s not to forget important elections this December in France’s regions which are the last test for parties before the country elects a new President. Campaigning is already in full force.

President Hollande addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Front National leader Marine Le Pen stood up in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in front of Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, armed with a double blow.

Hollande and Merkel in turn addressed a room full of Euro MPs, calling for more Europe at a time when the continent is more divided than ever over the influx of migrants and refugees. It was a speech that many deemed lacklustre. For Ms Le Pen, it provided her a platform to deliver some memorable, hardhitting soundbites. She was on a roll in her three-minute address.

Le Pen called Hollande Germany’s “vice-chancellor” who had sold out to a Berlin-dominated Europe. And to Mrs Merkel, she said: “I don’t recognise you, Madam.”

Hollande mustered some steel, saying the EU was a bastion against the “return of nationalism, populism [and] extremism”.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls characterised the situation with the FN as “worrying”. From the opinion polls to the division in the party and the left of politics, Valls recognises the more-than-credible threat from the rise of Le Pen – he is not alone.

Sarkozy's ally, Nadine Morano, who called France
Sarkozy’s ally, Nadine Morano, who called France “a country of the white race”

Nicolas Sarkozy has himself been embroiled in an internal affair this week which threatens the Republican party’s image just a few months since its rebrand. One deputy, Nadine Morano, has been pulled as a candidate from December’s regional elections after calling France “a country of the white race”. Only a few days later did Mr Sarkozy see the comments of one of his most loyal allies unacceptable. It is a huge deal for the party seized upon by their opponents.

Sarkozy is all too aware of the battle with the Front National. It is a tricky balancing act to appeal to FN voters and at the same time not lose moderate support in the important centre ground. One pollster said: “People prefer the original to the copy.” Sarkozy runs the risk of overstepping the line by putting FN sentiment into the political mainstream by simply legitimising them. No such threat from Mr Hollande, whose days, Sarkozy said, were numbered.

There’s no topic more divisive than that of immigration, despite the country’s insecure economic footing as Europe’s second-largest. The FN’s anti-immigration stance is one which is likely to see them win in the north of the country as well as its traditional stronghold in the south-east at the least.

Air France executive rescued by security
Air France executive rescued by security in a violent protest in Paris

It is also a week which saw scenes of violent protests at Air France in Paris over 3,000 jobs lost plastered across international newspapers and TV screens. An shameful reminder of the French stereotype of going out on strike which turned ugly. Hollande said such images had “serious consequences” for the image of France. For critics, it served as an opportunity to point to France’s footdragging on reforms. A large section of French business has long grown inefficient and uncompetitive. They’re only starting to realise that they have some way to go to regain lost ground in the global economy.

This electoral rollercoaster ride shows the damage of untimely blunders in the unforgiving political arena. In the words of Nicolas Sarkozy, it is a fight to the death.

More: Air France turbulence may end in crash, The Independent

A year of uncertainty and political dynamism: Spain going forward into 2015

A year of uncertainty and political dynamism: Spain going forward into 2015

I set myself the challenge of writing a concise analysis of Spain’s year in 2014, with a look at how the country’s next year will shape up. It will be a year of elections and plenty of political excitement, set against a Europe which is still far from mended.

Any comments, please do tweet me @andrewiconnell. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


They come and go so often that Spaniards of today are no longer surprised by their political class. One word that is synonymous with Spanish politics today is corruption, and it appears in the TV news and newspapers every single day. This distrust in politicians and their true motives may surprise but goes no way to placate the Spanish population.

As 2014 closed, there were more than 2000 corruption cases in Spain, ranging from national to regional levels of government, and equally in the royal family. Spain’s monarchy had little trouble in dealing with the transition of power from Juan Carlos, the towering figure of Spain’s ideological transition, to his son Felipe VI. The case surrounding Princess Cristina, the King’s sister, whose husband is accused of obtaining millions of public funds, which then implicated her on tax fraud charges, may force her to renounce her accession to the throne, and disgrace the family name. In 2015, expect more corruption being picked apart by Spain’s media, but don’t be surprised. Unfortunately, Spain seems to have become accustomed to such debauchery.

Political indignation was a movement that started in Spain back in 2011. Today, it is coming back to haunt politicians most recently following the passing into law of the so-called “Ley Mordaza” – the gagging law. Its content for many Western democracies is eyewateringly draconian. Fines are levied for taking photos of police officers, as well as demonstrating outside government buildings, and it has driven many thousands onto the streets to voice their opposition. It is being seen as an attempt by the conservative government to silence its critics for their handling of the financial crisis. The fight for rights in Spain’s civil society will continue well into 2015.

One story that caught the attention of the Spanish media has been that of pequeño Nicolás, or little Nicolas. It has played out like a movie thriller – there well may be an idea there. A boy of 20 years old, accused now of forgery, fraud and identity theft, allowed himself to rub shoulders with influential members of Spain’s governing party, to the point that Nicolás managed to somehow shake hands with Spain’s monarch, Felipe VI, during his coronation. The pale-faced law student – who hardly ever attended classes – has appeared in countless photographs crowding PP party politicians, including questionably closed-door meetings in party headquarters. Nicolás hired bodyguards, yachts and flash cars in order to pretend to live a high, double life, and allegedly posed as a member of Spain’s secret security forces. Did Nicolás’s infiltration into high political and economic circles lead to any influence? How was it that such a shadowy and young figure was allowed to get so close to politicians? A debate about trust in politicians has already started, as waves of public indignation continue to abound with ever greater magnitude.

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Pequeño Nicolás: the thriller (Credit: Telecinco)

It has also been quite the year for the Catalans. After a non-binding vote in November, talk in the region surrounding calling early elections and shared ballots is continuing. What could once have been seen as a perfect political marriage between Catalan president Artur Mas and coalition partner Oriol Junqueras is starting to produce more difference and disagreement. Demands for early elections are numerous, and look to be coming down the way in May. With absolutely no offer of an olive branch from Spain’s prime minister, Catalan independentists will be continuing to look around Europe for allies and specifically to Brussels to grant them a democratic means of recognising desires of independentistas to break away from the rest of Spain.

In terms of the popularity of independence in Catalonia, data from The Guardian has shown it’s a rising cause, though polls over the years have arguably pegged yes and no fairly level. A later poll in 2014 pushed no ahead of yes for the first time, but it is still very close to call. For its detractors, what marked November’s consultation were those who didn’t turn to the ballot. They may have been too scared to vote since the vote was deemed illegal; they might have thought it wasn’t worth voting because it was non-binding. These arguments work for both the yes and the no camps. Those who did turn out, more than two million of them, voted resoundingly yes-yes to the questions of whether Catalonia should be a state, and if so, should it be independent. I predict results of the early elections in the region will send out a very powerful message of increased support for independence, at the very least from sheer frustration.

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Yes or no? Catalans voting in non-binding consultation in November (Credit: Wikipedia)

Catalonia reached levels of international consciousness in this symbolic referendum through the media – an event that spoke as loud as the crowds did when gathered on the streets of Barcelona during Catalonia’s national day on September 11. This year a V for victory and vote marked the celebration. International consciousness of their cause is equally key for independence to gain further ground.

Much of what can or could happen in Catalonia will be debated in anticipation of the national election towards the end of 2015 with each party gesturing and speechifying, but only when all the cards are on the table and Spain knows exactly who will be governing them will Catalans know either way how close or far they are from gaining a definitive referendum. What will also decide Catalonia’s politics is the outcome of an ongoing legal case which has implicated Catalan president Artur Mas and several allies for illegally carrying out November’s consultation. Artur Mas in his New Year speech bemoaned the fact that the vote should have opened a route for political dialogue, not a legal dispute. The fact that Mariano Rajoy said nothing in anticipation of the vote and allowed it to happen was telling enough of the Spanish prime minister’s way of handling what he says is a side issue which has been growing because of, and not despite, the economic crisis, in his words. The results held no credibility for him.

One more thing that is central to Catalonia’s independence and a sweetener for the rest of Spain: constitutional reform. This is the current stumbling block stopping Catalans from voting, as currently all of Spain would have to be consulted on independence. The leader of the Socialist party says that by reforming the Magna Carta his party will create a more federal Spain, allowing other regions more local powers, but not so far as to allow Catalonia to vote on its own future. Podemos has straddled the two sides: they recognise Catalan and Basque desire for a right to vote, but oppose Catalan independence. The party’s leader said he wants to continue to build Spain all together.

In an election year, it is no cliché to say that it is all to play for. While Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy claims that the crisis is over and Spain is well on its way to recovery thanks to his strong governance, Spain’s now tripartite political scene has produced opinion polls that in recent months mean it is very close to call a winner in next year’s general election, expected in November. They have been tussling over economic figures and questioning the recovery, as well as bandying around the perennial need for “change” in Spain.

What the media has been calling the Podemos “phenomenon” could be to some extent a victim of its own success. With increased popularity – which the party undoubtedly has garnered – there has come greater scrutiny, in a year in which the movement became a party, gained a leader in Pablo Iglesias, and outlined some of its key measures, several of which it had to revise. Its rise has been astronomical to say the least. Populism has been spreading across a Europe which has experienced huge change politically from the start of the crisis, with more questioning of austerity and how countries can move away from the spectre of long-term European deflation. Can Podemos, having won five seats in the European elections in May, stand up to the bigger, more established parties and assert itself with a wide range of credible, not pie-in-the-sky, policies? Even the most seasoned of political commentators can never with complete certainty predict elections, and Spain is no exception. A lot can happen in the next year, and for all three main parties, mere points in opinion polls will be keenly fought over.

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Spain’s new leader/university professor? Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (Credit: Elmundo.es)

What Podemos may find hard to achieve on the European stage is credibility. By virtue of being such a new party which formed from a movement with members who are more at ease in lecture halls than parliament buildings, Brussels will undoubtedly eye this party with great uncertainty, as it is already doing with Syriza, the left-wing juggernaut in Greece. With Spain still on such an uneven economic footing, which many would say is as a result of painful, unfair and ignorant cuts and political decisions, Podemos is likely to rattle market confidence in Spain’s ability to become a fully convalescent patient in Europe. In its battle for hearts and minds, Podemos would win tomorrow. It’s not difficult to see that the need for Podemos, in a crisis which not only has political and economic facet but a huge social one, was long overdue. Its grass-root formation may just win it for them and be a shot in the arm for the European project and Spain’s traditional parties who couldn’t have expected a huge shake-up in Spain’s political scene.

This year saw the Socialist party gain a new leader in Pedro Sánchez, who is using Spain’s 1978 Constitution as a means of encouraging reform and a new start for Spain’s democracy. He is pushing Spain’s political classes on transparency, in a year which has seen most parties, according to research, become far less opaque with the voting public. Podemos meanwhile says that while the transition to democracy in Spain is now history, its legacy has produced a political climate built on mistrust and corruption.

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Spain’s unemployment won’t be moving for a while yet (Credit:Thecommentator.com)

Another cliché: it’s all about the economy. This may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but economic prosperity will be a key battleground in the election. Is everybody benefiting from Spain’s recovery? Definitely not. Does the recovery even exist? According to the data at least, mostly. While growth is heading upwards – and the Economy Minister Luis de Guindos very happy to vaunt Spain’s growth figures for next year of 2% – unemployment will remain both stubbornly and depressingly around the 23% level that it has been around for a while. Youth unemployment the same. On a recent trip to Madrid, I listened to rousing and heartfelt addresses to trains and metros by those touched by unemployment, eviction, huge money troubles, ultimately requesting spare change. One woman even laid packs of tissues on seats with a note explaining her sorry predicament. Passengers bow their heads and avoid eye contact, seemingly far too used to these undignifying, desperate, yet polite, calls for help.

Perhaps the biggest issue for Spain, and for Europe, will be the waves of immigrants from unstable and war-torn parts of the world. Scenes from Spain’s enclave of Melilla in Morocco of immigrants storming border fences are a reminder of how close the European continent is to North Africa and the Middle East, where the savagery in Syria and elsewhere is allowed to fester. Countries in Europe are now the place of refuge for several hundred thousand people. The debate around how Europe handles the humanitarian disaster leaking from conflict is going to be increasingly important, as the war in Syria moves into its fourth year. It will require the work of many nations.

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A tough year ahead for Europe as war-torn countries produce thousands of migrants (Credit:eldiario.es)

Though much of Spain’s news this year has been of domestic significance, the rise of Podemos, the battle for independence in Catalonia, trust in politicians, and economic recovery are themes that are springing up all around Europe going into 2015. Not only is their outcome hard to predict, such problems will also take more than just one year to mend.