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.

 

Don’t mention the G-word. Turning up the heat in Europe

Don’t mention the G-word. Turning up the heat in Europe

Greece still has many hurdles to jump through before it can see its 86bn euro bailout being enacted. First, a vote in the Greek parliament is needed by Wednesday, which seems likely with opposition support. Parliaments in several eurozone states also have to approve the new bailout. In the longer term, Greece’s economy will likely enter a serious recession – a contraction of 3%, a rise in unemployment above 26%, and that’s before the ECB announces any further emergency liquidity (ELA) to prop up Greece’s virtually bust banking system, with capital controls to be kept in place for some time yet, and banks of course, still closed. And on Alexis Tsipras’ desk, a bill of 3.5bn euros to be paid to the ECB by next Monday.

With the vote on Greece’s bailout producing a decisive ‘no’ vote last Sunday, it was as much a referendum on prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza government, who now face supporting a more draconian bailout than was previously offered. The shift to populist parties across Europe is a trend that is set to continue, given the success of UKIP as a significant player in UK politics, the rapid rise of Podemos and latterly Ciutadans in Spain, as well as other parties across the continent challenging the consensus and traditional party politics. Together with this is a growing probing of democracy in Brussels, as many politicians will use the Greek deal as a means of making bold statements on the brutal nature of negotiations EU-style. Among them, the politics – and fairness – of austerity – endlessly debated between economists, its effects witnessed on every level in pharmacies and homes in Greece.

Talks around the table about Greece’s bailout flared up European divisions on the country’s exit from the single currency it has just avoided. Similar rifts on the migrant crisis have divided north and south Europe – the lion share of the 137,000 people in the first six months of the year arriving at the shores of Italy and Greece, the majority fleeing from Syria’s bloody civil war, according to a recent UNHCR report.

A look at headlines in recent days points to the continued scale of this problem. “Hungary begins work on border fence to keep out migrants”. 80,000 migrants have already reached Hungary this year, 80% of them from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Hungary received more refugees per capita than any other EU country apart from Sweden. The threat of migrants is causing other European states to erect walls and fences, a physical and symbolic image of this problem.

The solidarity needed to implement Brussels’ plan to distribute migrants more fairly throughout Europe and ease the pressure on its most vulnerable states was in short evidence, after the plan was rejected at the end of June by European leaders, confirming again the toxic nature of immigration.

Long ignored in the European news cycle has been Ukraine. Its economy is forecast to shrink by nine percent this year, so precarious the situation remains in the country. Russia’s frozen conflict in the east has affected production, as a trade war continues. Gas supplies from Russia to Ukraine, as of the beginning of July, have been halted.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko spoke yesterday of Russia’s plan to make Ukraine a “state of bondage”, wishing to exert political influence through the conflict in the east. He said: “Ukraine won’t allow that.”

He also warned of a new spike in military activity in Donbass: “We’ve got information that there is a record large number of the armed forces of the Russian federation along with the border of Ukraine.”

The Greek deal this morning has also staved off the threat of Russian economic assistance for the crippled southern European economy. Russian president Vladimir Putin was keen to ally with Tsipras, the latter describing Russia as one of “Greece’s most important partners” just last month. In addition, NATO movements in the Baltics to counter Russian aggression look unlikely to end any time soon.

A cocktail of economics and politics have already made for an incredibly turbulent year for Europe and its institutions. Disagreements are likely to create further divisions, proving the difficulty in mastering the art of diplomacy in such a divergent continent.

French education reform

French education reform

I’ve been avidly following the twists and turns of the biggest story in France for a few weeks now – the controversial education reform that the Socialist government is wishing to bring into force despite protests and a lot of noise from the unions and the right of politics. It’s a heady mix of education and politics, and it rarely goes smoothly.

Here is my 2-minute report on what has been happening this week with this big debate in France.

Cameron’s ticking clock to an EU referendum

Cameron’s ticking clock to an EU referendum

When pressed yesterday, David Cameron said that having his planned EU referendum before the end of 2017 would be all the better. He refused to be drawn on what stance he would pick as of today, and denied the chance for cabinet members to take their own personal stance on pro- or anti-Europe in the event of a vote. In his first interview of 2015, Cameron reinforced that his changes would not only make Britain better, but in a not so modest vein, would make Europe better too.

With such a traditional election campaign already in motion, fought between the Conservatives and Labour on the economy and the NHS, how much space will Europe end up occupying? Nigel Farage is sitting quiet so far – he will have to produce a manifesto with much more than just Europe on the table – but how long before he throws his hat into the ring and pressurises Cameron and the election rhetoric into broaching the topic of the EU? If last year gave the first signs of a UKIP building itself up for the election, when several Conservative MPs and many more voters not only flirted with UKIP but deserted the Tories, Cameron’s UKIP nightmare is set to worsen.

Current benefits

Was David Cameron’s logic right when he argued so strongly that by controlling benefits fewer EU migrants would come to this country? Many political commentators dismissed this as overly simplistic, and in any case, is Cameron even right to limit his view of “problematic” migrants as being just from the EU? He may be forgetting a sizeable number of EU migrants who are simply here to work, regardless of benefits. A UCL study from November revealed that European migrants pay out far more in taxes than they receive back in benefits. That is to the tune of £4.96 billion each year since 2011, making it a net contribution of £20 billion so far. Cameron would surely not argue with how well he says the UK has recovered. In this way, the highly skilled and educated migrants that the study says are coming to Britain are no more than taking advantage of the country’s upbeat economic figures and the growing number of jobs on offer.

In the interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Cameron renewed Conservative efforts to bring down Britain’s debt and deficit, in order to, as he says, prevent massive cuts to health such as in Portugal or Greece, where cuts of 16 or 17 per cent have been made, again according to Cameron’s figures. Britain can only ever be strong if Europe is too, and Cameron went on to say that influence, trade links and access to European markets from being in the union are invaluable for the country’s recovery.

He later outlined his current thinking on benefits for EU migrants: no unemployment benefit full stop, migrants would be kicked out if they can’t find a job within six months, and tax credits would only come after residing in the UK for four years and paying enough into the system. Cameron was asked several times over on where he stands on a cap on EU migrants – it sounded like he had let that idea go, but he didn’t say it. How Cameron phrased it was: “Those things [change in welfare system for EU migrants] I believe would achieve a reduction in, in migration…” It is a not-so-convincing line of argument.

“The most important thing of all is being able to make changes to the welfare system,” he told the Mail on Sunday. “The key areas are safeguarding the single market, getting out of ever-closer union, being able to veto regulations and a package of measures on welfare.”

(Re-)negotiation

David Cameron has put a two-year window on the table in which he wishes to re-negotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union, an ever closer relationship which Cameron says he wants to get out of. This would require treaty change, and therefore a vote, which would have to be agreed unanimously between the union’s 28 member states. Angela Merkel a year ago ruled out retouching any of the treaties.

When David Cameron sits down with Angela Merkel later on in the week, the topic of Europe will be needless to say highest on the list. The Euro at a nine-year low against the dollar, the possibility of a Greek exit, so say some, if or indeed when, Syriza are elected into the Greek government at the end of January, the likelihood of quantitative easing starting within the 19-member currency, and last but not least, Putin’s tactics this year in Ukraine. All in all, it is a perilous mood that David Cameron has to contend with as Europe – and the UK’s biggest trading partner – enters into 2015.

What to watch out for then when Angela Merkel arrives in London on Wednesday … Will she be set back by the anti-EU feeling that there is in the UK, at the same time when she is having to confront right-wing forces, albeit less than comparable to UKIP, that nonetheless threaten relations between different ethnic groups? Newspapers are calling it a “love-hate relationship”, whilst another says “Angela Merkel underestimates how toxic Europe is for David Cameron’s UK voters”. This might just be the final time David Cameron and Angela Merkel can share their grievances together as heads of government, and neither is known for mincing their words on the topic of Europe at least. Yet for all of the worrying, David Cameron can rest easy in knowing he’s not the leader who will be micro-managing Europe’s precarious year ahead.

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.