Election Day 1 I’m twittering…or something like that.

Well, it’s Election Day, and it’s almost over.  I’ve been in a faraway village and at the bowling alleys to celebrate the event and haven’t had the chance to reach internet.  Here I am.  So far, things are going according to predictions.  The exit polls have given the PP a huge victory, and the absolute majority.  But those are the polls, and they can’t be trusted.  One thing is for sure, the Socialist Party is on its way out.  By how much?  It’s hard to say.

I’m not Talking Spanish Politics 10: Quiet Please

Tomorrow is election day.  Today is the day of reflection when none of the candidates or parties can campaign.  It’s a day for thinking.   Sssssh.



I’m not talking Spanish politics 10 – here’s why

It’s called the D’Hondt Method, and you can ask a thousand friends and family at home and probably get the same dumb look on their faces, so don’t feel bad.

      It’s the name of the mathematical design behind the Spanish electoral system, and its creator was an 18th Century Belgian mathematician who devised it for party-list elections.  That is, unlike in the States, where members of Congress are voted on directly by the populace, here, as in many European countries, the people vote for entire parties which have prepared their lists for parliamentary representation.  No head-to-head brawling.  Most people have no idea who represents their district.

      This system is considered extremely fair, and only slightly favors large parties, while allowing for small concentrated regional parties to get their representation in the legislature.  I’m no math expert, but I say that’s bollocks.  I mean people whined and bitched about the Electoral College in 2000 when Bush ran off with the elections with a lower popular vote (I’m still one of the few who argue that if a candidate’s own state doesn’t vote for him, as was the case with Gore, then he doesn’t deserve to be elected), but this can get just as dicey.

      Look at the supposed representation.  Izquierda Unida under this method gets reamed big time.  Last 2008, the party pulled off its worse showing in decades, but still ended up being the third most voted for of all.  It tallied 969,871 votes in all, earning them 3 seats in parliament.  The Catalan party CiU grabbed 779,425 votes, yes that’s about 20% less, but somehow ended up with ten members of parliament.  How can that be?  The CiU’s support came from four provinces in Catalonia while the IU disputed 42 provinces.  The votes were greater but all over the goddamn country.  The Popular Party, another pan-Spain competitor, won a little over 10 million votes and landed 154 seats.  Now let’s do a little rounding for simplicity’s sake.  IU won about a million votes and got 3 seats.  PP walked away with 10 million votes and took home 154.  The conservative party outdid IU with ten times more votes but 50 times more representation in parliament.  But wait, they said this was fair.

        It gets better…

I’m not talking Spanish Politics 9

All is terribly quiet on the campaign front in part because there is so little to talk about.  Barring any last-minute shockers, and, after the 2004 elections, I do not say that mockingly, the results are all but a foregone conclusion.  Now they are scrambling to gain or prevent an absolutely majority by the PP.

        Now, just because the Socialist Party and the conservative Popular Party had muscled their way to the top as the two leading national political entities, doesn’t mean they don’t have competitors.  They have; it’s just that they aren’t what they used to be in many ways.  The UCD, which ran the country in the first four years, dissolved rather quickly, and the party to spring up from its ashes, the CDS, fared even worse.  It was all but gone by the early 90s.  This was due to the fact that the PSOE and the PP had become moderate enough in their stances to attract politically central voters.  An official center-party made less and less sense.

       Izquierda Unida (The United Left), or just IU for short, was a conglomerate of different far-left parties which began to grow in popularity.  It managed to pool together several million votes in the 1990s with a man named Julio Anguita at the helm.  But it had a problem.  Because it was voted on nationally, and because its votes were spread out nationwide, the IU rarely got the representation it deserved in parliament.

      The bulk of the other parties is made up of regional and nationalist parties which defend their provincial interests and in some case support secession.  These are my favorite:  They try to get into the Spanish Congress just to say they want to leave.

        The two biggest parties are the PNV in the Basque Country and the CiU in Catalonia.  Their influence on the course of the country has been considerable over the years as the major parties have at times had to pact with them in order to get enough support to run parliament (we’ll get to that later because it’s pretty amusing).  Both the PSOE and the PP are “guilty” of this because they have both resorted to the regional parties when they didn’t have the absolute majority.  These groups have also had a large representation in parliament because of the way the voting system is designed…I’ll tell you more later.

I’m not talking about Spanish politics 8

To say that Zapatero didn’t deserve to win the 2004 election would be unfair because he undisputedly received the most votes.  To say he didn’t expect to win is a different story.  Some say he got lucky because it came as a result of the death of nearly two hundred innocent lives but that is a twisted way of looking at the whole matter.  However, there is no doubt that, in this case, the use of extreme violence actually did produce the desired results: pain, suffering and political collapse.

       On March 11, 2004, three days before the general election and two and a half years to the day after the 9/11 attacks, what would have been an uneventful morning on the public transportation system, in a flash, turned into hours of horror and mayhem.  191 drowsy commuters were literally blown apart by several bombs planted in small backpacks and left unattended on several commuter trains.  As opposed to the strategy used in America, there were no suicide bombers, but devices set off electronically by cell phones from a distance; the aggressor would call the number and detonate the bomb.

      At first everyone thought this was ETA’s doing.  They are the Basque terrorist group responsible for some 800 deaths over the past four decades.  Though the band had never perpetrated anything on that scale and normally targeted politicians, police, judges or military personnel instead of everyday civilians, no one considered another possibility.  The bombing had been done just the week after a huge van stuffed with explosives had been located right outside of Madrid, and in December of the year before, bags carrying bombs had been discovered on trains in the north of Spain.  Both had been carried out by ETA.  It was reasonable to think ETA was behind the attack this time.  As we walked to work to the incessant sounds of wailing sirens, not a single person I knew thought otherwise.  It was an unusually brutal act for the group, but given the dates, who else could it have been?  Even El País, the left-leaning national newspaper, cast the blame on ETA outright, as did numerous international dailies.

        But something just wasn’t quite right.

      Just hours after the bombing had occurred, the first rumors that the Basques had nothing to do with the horrifying massacre began to circulate.  A tape with verses from the Koran were found in one of the vans used by the attackers, and the explosives used, GOMA-2, were not standard ETA material.    The savagery of the act seemed almost uncharacteristic of the terroirist group; if anything, it appeared suicidal.  If there was ever a way of doing their own cause in, that would have been it.

      Still most people refused to believe it.  It just didn’t make sense.  And the Aznar government reaffirmed that stance of incredulousness by insisting it had no doubt about who had committed the crime.  The opposition grew more and more suspicious.  Suddenly, as a hundred bodies had yet to be identified, politics got involved.

        You see, who was right had huge political implications as what was at stake was enormous.  The ruling party blamed ETA, and that would have meant probably taking in more votes on Sunday because a harder stance would be needed against the terrorists and they would have been just the people to do it.  But if the Muslims had bee the authors of the act, the Left could point the finger at the government claiming that because of Spain’s involvement in the war, 200 hundred people are dead.  Though no one actually sought this, I am not going to accuse anyone of that kind of barbarous behavior, each side knew the benefits and damages of both situations.

        The difference was, there really was no doubt.  At least for those who were well informed.  The Muslim theory grew in strength as the evidence piled up.  While the spokesman for the Popular Party kept the country abreast of this possibility he also played it down, and by Saturday, as members of the police were arresting suspects from a radical Islamic group, the administration was still informing that it believed ETA was probably behind it all.  The government was trying to delay the information before the election halls opened the next morning, and the opposition party was eager to get the news out and place the blame on the part.  Everyone was either in a hurry or taking their time.  No one had bothered to postpone the election a week off and honor the dead.

       The next day, with anger in their minds, voters flocked to the ballot boxes and essentially ousted the Popular Party from power and handed it back to Zapatero and the socialists.  It was a knee-jerk reaction, but an understandable one.  A cell group from Al Qaeda had successfully toppled a government with the effectiveness it had with knocking down two 100-story buildings.

I’m not talking Spanish politics 7

Spain has held ten free elections resulting in four different prime ministers since its return to democracy.  Given the fact the country had to wrench itself out of four decades of far-right dictatorship, the process has been surprisingly smooth and varied.

      The first elections in contemporary times took place in 1977 and it was a middle-of-the road party, known as the Central Democratic Union, that carried the day.  More than a party, it was a coalition of some twenty other minor parties which banded together to form a considerable political force made up mainly by moderate Francoists and other central right-wingers, but also counted on the support of some center-left groups too.  The UCD did not get enough votes to take the absolute majority in parliament, so its power was conceded to it by the other parties in hopes of getting things started.  The legislature under Spain’s first modern democratically-elected Prime Minister, Adolfo Suarez, lasted roughly two years before the next election in 1979.

     The UCD won again but were barely hanging on as fissures in the federation became greater.  They bad thing about trying to stick to the center is that no one else seems to be entirely satisfied with what you do.   Suarez, feeling that his power was slipping away from him, and realizing that he was no longer able to lead the country effectively, resigned; when his successor Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo was being voted in, the Civil Guard paramilitary group decided to try and take over the government.  They were hoping to bring the country back under the rule of the far-right.  It would seem that was all they knew how to do.  It was how they handled it in 1936.  Luckily, though, it failed.

      A year later, the Socialist Party won by an overwhelming margin.  The UCD showed clear signs of disintegration by losing 155 seats in parliament.  That is what I call a devastating loss.

       The socialist leader was a man named Felipe Gonzalez, who ran the government for nearly 15 years.  Spain, as is the case in many other European countries, still does not have a law limiting the number of years a prime minister can be in power.  Gonzalez, by far the party’s most charismatic leader, had very few internal rivals.  But 15 years is a long time by anyone’s standards.  The Socialist Party won the next three general elections before bowing in 1996 to the Popular Party (sometimes translated as the People’s Party), which was the rising center-right conservative force in Spain.  In a sense this election was vital to the democratic process because it showed that the country was comfortable with letting a right-wing party return to power.  It was an almost necessary step.  Its leader, José María Aznar, took over.  He won again in 2000, this time with the absolute majority.  Aznar took Spain through a period of general prosperity but stumbled with his support of the United States in the Iraq War.  This decision was immensely unpopular in Spain and cost his party dearly.

      Aznar vowed from the beginning that he would never seek a third term and stuck to his word.  His successor, Mariano Rajoy, still the Popular Party’s leader today, ran in his place and competed against the Socialist leader, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.  The race was close, but as late as a week before the election, it seemed Rajoy would hold onto his lead and win.  Then, suddenly, something extraordinary happened…

I’m not talking Spanish politics 6

There are a lot of things that campaigns have in common.  Bickering, birching, mudslinging, and all that good stuff.  But one aspect that sets the American and Spanish electoral systems apart from each other is the amount of time devoted to these campaigns.  Whereas running for president requires about 18 months of exhausting tree-stumping, hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses, tens of thousands of kilometers of traveling, the Spanish version is condensed to a paltry three weeks.  It’s as if they couldn’t be bothered with putting up with all the hassle. And it kind of makes sense.  I mean, we know who the candidates are, we know what their parties stand for, we know just who is going to vote for whom…so why prolong the issue?

         The States in part (but only in part) can justify their outstretched process by arguing that they have the primaries to nominate a candidate.  That’s a valid point to an extent.  Then it stops being one.  Objectively speaking, there is no reason for it to go on for months on end.

         In Spain, it’s the party members who do the choosing.  This, in my opinion, is a huge drawback because people like to have a say in those matters.  What if, for example, you like the party but not the candidate?  Then, what do you do?  These are the types of questions and comments that people have stated in the past.  Especially after the last election in the U.S. in 2008, people here wished they could have a more active role in the process.  Oh well, I guess that won’t be happening for a while…if it ever does.

I’m not talking Spanish politics 5

Rubalcaba and Rajoy are the main candidates because they are the most likely to win the election.  Actually, Rajoy is the most likely to win; Rubalcaba’s objective is to do anything he can to reduce the enormous difference separating his ruling party from the challenger.  As I mentioned before, he stands somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 points ahead of his rival.  So, as we speak, barring any last-minute shocker, what is at stake is not the premiership of the government but the absolutely majority in the parliament.   Should the Popular Party turn this into a rout, that may just happen.

       This might appear to be just a two-party system of the kind you find in the United States, but years ago Spain was a country fraught with political parties.  Parties which had a definite impact on the direction of the country.  You had your communists, your socialists, your anarchists, your moderates, your conservatives, your monarchists, your Francoists and your fascists.   Everyone was involved.  Many still are, but their parties are no longer that relevant.  Others continue to be a force because most of their votes are concentrated in regions with a strong nationalist (i.e. separatist) character, such as Catalonia and the Basque Country.  But we’ll get to them later.  National parties have come and gone, but as things are now, there is little room for a third major party, as the two big ones have slowly muscled out the competition.  They have moderated their tones and have grown more mainstream, despite their fiery speeches.  They have accpeted the system, and that is a big step towards a stable democracy…at the cost of political diversity.  Here’s a chart that examines the progress of the major parties since the first modern elections in 1977.

File:Popular vote spain 1977 2008.gif

Are we getting fancy?  Charts and everything.  The dominence of the Popular Party and the Socialist Party in that past few years is undeniable.  But this is all a little more complicated than that, I can assure you.

I’m not talking Spanish politics 4

The moderator announced that the debate was being viewed around the planet by international Spanish channels, as well as an Italian and Portuguese channels.  I am not sure just what that means nor do I know how to interpret it, other than possibly the fact that 6.99 billion people on this planet were doing something else.

     So what happened?  Very little, as you would expect.  Most people at this stage in the game have a fairly good idea of whom they are going to vote for.  So unless one of them makes a huge blunder and promises to raise taxes 35% and cut out all state funding for children’s education and national health, very little comes of these events.  It’s like an intense chess game where you want to make as few mistakes as possible.  Since, Rajoy is favored to win the election, it was his objective not to trip up and give the general public a reason to change their mind.  That was why he said as little as possible and did a mighty good job of it.  The only thing was, I was kind of hooing he would tell us a little about his political program, because that was why I was watching, but he didn’t want to oblige.  His strategy of deflection was so extreme that it bordered on the absurd.  Rubalcaba would say something like, “Would you please tell us once and for all what your favorite color is?”

     “Wouldn’t you like to know my favorite. Just wouldn’t you!  I’m not going to tell you my favorite color because I’ve already told everyone my favorite color. I will tell you my favorite but not the way you want me too.  And that’s because for the past right years, you’ve let this country go down the toliet, and it’s your fault that we’re in the mess that we’re in…” and he would go on for another six minutes ripping the Socialist party apart and we would never learn about his favorite color.

        The same went for other issues like medical care, unemployent support, welfare, etc.  Rajoy was just not up for informing.  Rubalcaba, whose got a major catch-up task before him, his party trails by some 15 points, was on the attack from minute one.  Sometimes he had some good points, but other times he stumbled.

       The debate ended and everyone pretty much went home satisfied that their side had won.  A kind of stalemate.  Finding a solid political analysis was not easy since most speakers were openly partisan.  One channel did the intellgient thing inviting leaders of each party to give their impression and the opinions were obvious.  My first impression was the Rubalcaba had a bit of the edge, since Rajoy barely told us about anything, but the Socialist candidate hardly convinced the viewership either.   Surprising, the left-leaning El País newspaper felt that Rajoy handled the debate better.   That’s saying a lot coming from a paper which rarely has a kind word for the Partido Popular.  Rubalcaba had to strike hard, but he didn’t have much of an effect.

I’m not talking Spanish politics 3

Monday night is usually a great night for doing nothing, or at least that is what hear.  I rarely have time to sit back and indulge in anything but utter exhaustion.  But when I do get around to it, I like to go for the remote and zap around the Spanish airwaves and usually ending up watching some film until some late hour.

     But tonight is different. We have a chance to watch the first debate between the two main candidates for the prime ministership, or whatever you call that post.  They are Manuel Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party (Partido Popular or PP – pronounced “Pe-PE” not “Pee-Pee”) and Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español or PSOE – generally pronounced “Pe-SO-eh”).  They are squaring up to punch it out tonight.  As is true of most debates, very little is expected to change.  But we’ll see.  They organizers obviously figured that by airing it tonight, most people would have no choice but to watch it.  That’s why I am.  Not becuase I am a poltical writer.

      Damn!  It’s just about to start.