Monthly Archives: December 2015

Spain Says “No” to Austerity

Spain Says “No”

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 23, 2016

 

For the third time in a year, the tight-fisted, austerity policies of the European Union (EU) took a beating, as Spanish voters crushed their rightwing government and overturned four decades of two-party reign. Following in the footsteps of Greek and Portuguese voters earlier this year, Spaniards soundly rejected the economic formula of the Troika—the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund—that has impoverished millions of people and driven the jobless rate to almost a quarter of the country.

 

Greece’s leftist prime minister, Alex Tsipras said “Austerity has been politically defeated in Spain,” and that the election was a sign “that Europe was changing.” Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi said, “As already happened in Greece and Portugal, governments which apply rigid austerity measures…are destined to lose their majorities.”

 

The big loser in the Spanish elections was the rightwing Popular Party (PP) that lost 63 seats and its majority in the 350-member parliament. The PP won more votes than any other single party, but its support fell from 44 percent in the 2011 elections to 28.7 percent. While PP Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy ran on a platform that the Spanish economy had recovered from its disastrous plummet following the 2007-08 worldwide financial crisis, voters were not buying.

 

The economy is indeed growing—3.1 percent this year and projections for 2.7 percent in 2016—but after four years it has yet to reach pre-crisis levels. Unemployment has remained at 21 percent nationwide and more than double that figure among youth and in Spain’s battered south.

 

Besides delivering a decisive “no” to austerity, Spaniards also turned out the two-party system that has dominated Spain since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. For 40 years the PP and Socialists Workers Party (PSOE) have taken turns running the country, racking up a track record of corruption and malfeasance. The Socialists also took a drubbing, albeit less so than the PP. PSOE lost 20 seats and fell from 28.8 percent support in 2011 to 22 percent in 2015.

 

The winners were two new parties, the left-wing Podemos (“We Can”) and the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), although it was former that really won the day.

 

In pre-election polls the Citizens party was projected to become the second largest party, but voters clearly decided that its free market economic strategies and backward positions on abortion and immigration made it look like PP-lite. Ciudadanos was supposed to win upwards of 25 percent. Instead it took less than 14 percent of the vote, although that translates into 40 seats.

 

For months the Spanish and European media have been filled with stories on Podemos’ falling support—one newspaper called it “No Podemos” (“No we can’t”)—and the New York Times essentially anointed Ciudadanos as the new up and comer. Voters had a different idea and gave the left party 20.6 percent of the vote and 69 seats in the parliament.

 

Spain’s political system is heavily weighted toward rural areas, where both the PP and the Socialists are strong. In Madrid, a candidate needs more than 128,000 votes to be elected. In a rural area that figure can be only a little over 38,000. The difference in votes between the Socialists and Podemos—both won more than five million—was only 341,000, but the Socialists have 90 seats and Podemos has 69.

 

Podemos came out of the 2011 plaza demonstrations by “Los Indignados” fighting against home foreclosures, social inequality, evictions, and massive cuts in support for education and health care. Its membership is mainly urban, although it has made gains in rural areas. Its grassroots organizing experience came in handy it when it needed to turn out votes.

 

Cuidadanos started as a regional party opposed to Catalan independence but, taking a page from Podemos’s book, went national last year.

 

Rajoy says he intends to form a government, but how that would work is not clear. Both Podemos and the Socialists—between them they control 159 seats—have made it clear they intend to fight any attempt by the PP to remain in power. Rajoy could try a coalition with the Citizens Party, but that would only amount to 163 seats, and one needs 176 seats to control the parliament. In any case, Citizens’ leader, Albert Rivera, says he won’t go into an alliance with Rajoy because of the PP’s history of corruption.

 

There are other members of the parliament representing the Basque regions and Catalonia, and Podemos emerged as the strongest party in both regions. However, it will not be easy for a Socialist Party/Podemos alliance to patch together a majority, and it will require navigating the tricky politics of Catalonia.

 

Catalonia, Spain’s richest province has 17 seats in the parliament, all of whom support either greater independence or outright secession. Catalonia became part of Spain after it was conquered by a joint French/Spanish army during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). It has its own language and culture, which until recently was suppressed by Madrid. In September, 47.7 percent of Catalans voted for independence-leaning candidates, who now control the regional parliament.

 

The Socialists Party and Podemos are both opposed to Catalonian independence, although Podemos believes the issue should be up to the Catalans and supports a referendum on the issue. Ciudadanos is adamantly opposed to Catalan independence.

 

It might be possible to cobble together a government from the 159 seats that the Socialists and Podemos control with the 28 other seats representing Basques, Catalans, Canary Islanders, plus other leftish groups. While such a government looks fragile, it might be better than trying to forge a three-way alliance of Socialists, Podemos and Ciudadanos.

 

The latter party is opposed to government regulation, supports privatization of publically owned assets and, at its core, is socially conservative. The left, on the other hand, wants a strong role for government and is firmly opposed to privatization. And the election, says Socialist Party leader Pedro Sanchez, shows Spain wants “a move to the left.”

 

On January 13, King Felipe VI will most likely offer Rajoy the first shot at forming a government. If he does, it will be a short-lived minority one. Last month the right-wing Portuguese president appointed a minority rightist government, which only lasted a week. The Portuguese left is currently hammering together a three-way alliance that will run the country.

 

If Rajoy fails, and the Socialists can’t cobble something together, then there will have to be new elections. However, the left has the best chance of pulling a coalition together.

Whatever happens, the old two-party system is broken. Before this election, the two major parties controlled 75 percent to 85 percent of the votes. In this last election that fell to just over 50 percent. And that, as Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias says, means, “Spain is not going to be the same, and we are happy.”

 

The next hurtle is the EU. But while the Troika could beat up on Greece, Spain, with the fifth largest economy in the EU, is altogether another matter. The game is changing, and Spain is a new piece on the board, one that the Troika will not be able to bully quite as easily as Greece and Portugal.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

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End To Right’s Reign In Spain?

An End To Right’s Reign In Spain?

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 12, 2015

 

 

“Volatile” seems to be the adjective of choice for pollsters going into the Dec. 20 Spanish elections, a balloting that will likely not only change the face of politics in the European Union’s (EU) fifth largest economy, but one that will have reverberations throughout the 28-nation organization. Long dominated by two parties—the rightwing People’s Party (PP) and the center-left Socialist Workers Party—the political landscape has atomized over the past two years. “For the first time in general elections in Spain,” says Manuel Mostaza Barros of Sigma Dos poll, “We have four parties polling above 15 percent when it comes to voter intentions.”

 

What levers those voters pull is very much up for grabs. Polls indicate that 41 percent of the electorate has yet to make up their minds. But whatever party ends up on top, it will have to go into a coalition, thus ending the reign of the two-party system that has dominated the country since the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

 

The latest polls indicate that the rightwing PP will take a beating, dropping from the 44 percent that it won four years ago to around 28 percent, but it will still win the largest number of votes of any one party. Behind the PP are the Socialists, with close to 21 percent, followed by the center-right Ciudadanos Party at 19 percent, and the left-wing Podemos Party at 15.7 percent.

 

However, with a chunk of the voters yet to make up their minds, “These are the most volatile elections of recent years,” says pollster Mostanza. Pablo Iglesias of Podemos says, “We’re expecting a bumpy ride with political turbulence.”

 

Spain is just beginning to emerge from five years of draconian austerity that drove the national jobless rate to 27 percent, and above 50 percent in the country’s south and among its young people. While growth has finally returned, unemployment is still 22 percent, and far higher for those under 35. The gap between rich and poor has sharply widened, and many workers have lost their modest state support, because they have been jobless for more than two years.

 

The PP’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been campaigning on a program of ‘stay the course because things are improving.’ The Party’s slogan is “Espana, en serio” (“Spain, seriously”). Opponents have added a question mark to the end of that sentence.

 

It is true that Spain’s economy is growing—3.1 percent in 2015, and projections for 2.7 percent in 2016—but the austerity program had little to do with that turnaround. The fall in the euro’s value has lifted Spain’s export industries, and the precipitous drop of world oil prices—from $114 in 2014 to $35 today—are the major reasons Spain has clawed its way out of recession.

 

Spain’s woes began with the American banking crisis of 2007-08, which crashed Spain’s vast real estate bubble and threatened to bring down its financial system. At the time, Spain had a budget surplus and a modest debt, but speculators drove borrowing rates so high that the country found itself on the edge of default.

 

The Socialists were in power at the time and accepted a “bailout” from the “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. The term “bailout” is a misnomer, since most of the money went to the speculators: German, Dutch, French and English banks. And the “price” the Troika demanded in return was a savage austerity regime that threw Spain into a five year recession, impoverishing millions of its citizen, and driving the jobless rate to over a quarter of the country.

 

However, the Spanish did not go quietly into that good night. Starting in 2011, hundreds of thousands of “indignatos” occupied the plazas of Spain’s great cities, a massive outpouring of rage that eventually led to the formation of Podemos—“We can.” The Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. was an offshoot of the plaza demonstrations.

 

Podemos shocked the country in 2012 by winning 8 percent of the vote in the European parliamentary elections and eventually polling as high as 24 percent, making it the second largest party in the country. Since then its poll numbers have fallen for a variety of reasons, but it is still likely to win close to 50 seats in the 350-member parliament.

 

There are a number of complicating factors in the upcoming elections, some national, some regional, particularly in the case of Spain’s wealthiest province, Catalonia.

 

The Spanish newspapers and the international media are harping on Podemos’ declining support—some have been hard pressed to dampen their obvious glee—but the 27 percent was always a soft number. Indeed, Podemos activists charge that the figures were deliberately inflated so that when later polls reflected a decline in support, the media could claim that the left party was “out of steam.”

 

The mass media—dominated by Spain’s elites—have been relentless in their attacks, and Podemos, the most resource-poor of the four major parties, has struggled it get its message out. But the party is a grassroots organization, and it knows how to get out the vote. Plus, in last May’s regional elections Podemos-allied candidates were elected mayor in Madrid, Barcelona, Cadiz, Zaragoza and several other cities.

 

Ciudadanos is the wildcard in this election. Originally a Catalan-based party formed to oppose the push for Catalonian independence, it now has a national profile. It is also anti-abortion and anti-immigrant, and its economic policies are closer to the PP than the Socialists, let alone Podemos. It is, however, deeply critical of the PP’s corruption, and generally supports the kind of constitutional changes favored by the more left forces.

 

The Party’s telegenic leader, Albert Rivera, is hard to pin down on anything but Catalonia and taxes: he opposes independence and he wants to cut business taxes. Whether voters will be attracted to the party’s vague centralism remains to be seen.

 

Catalonia is another wildcard. In the Sept. 27 regional election, the pro-independence parties took 47.7 percent of the vote and 72 of the 135 seats in the regional parliament. While pro-independence parties hailed it as a major victory, the PP government in Madrid called it a defeat for the breakaway movement because the independence parties drew less than 50 percent of the voters.

 

Catalonia was conquered by a joint French and Spanish army during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) and has never quite reconciled itself to rule by Madrid.

 

Podemos took some losses in the Sept. 27 vote, largely because they are caught in the middle. The Party does not want Catalonia to breakaway from Spain, but it also supports the right of the Catalans to hold a referendum to decide the matter. Standing on the sidelines is not a successful formula in polarized Catalonia.

 

Just as it did in the Greek and Portuguese elections, the EU has waded into the Spanish elections. Brussels has showered the PP government with praise, and the Troika has eased up on its austerity demands, allowing the PP to put forth modest spending increases for education and social services. The EU has also warned Catalans that if they break free from Spain, they cannot assume they will be able to maintain their membership in the organization. Similar threats were aimed at Scotland when it was considering breaking free from Great Britain.

 

The EU and the PP have also warned Spaniards that if they don’t support the PP’s economic program, they could end up like Greece. That line of argument didn’t work in last month’s elections in Portugal, where a coalition of center-left forces has taken control despite a massive media campaign warning the Portuguese that failure to support the rightwing government’s austerity policies would lead to ruin and damnation. Images of Greek pensioners lined up at banks flooded television ads.

 

 

But Portugal has now become a model for a center-left takeover. Initially the rightwing coalition claimed that, because it received the largest number of votes, it should continue to rule. The rightwing Portuguese president agreed and re-appointed the old government, a maneuver that lasted a little more than a week, when they were voted out of office by the progressive coalition.

 

The PP’s Rajoy supported the position of the rightist Portuguese government even though it had received only 38 percent of the vote. The final outcome in Lisbon may be a re-run of Portugal: Rajoy gets the most votes of any single party, but not enough to rule.

 

The difference in Spain is Ciudadanos. The Spanish party is much more conservative than the center-left Socialist Party in Portugal, and there is a possibility that it could go into coalition with the PP. That would give a center right government a majority in the parliament.

 

Ciudadanos leaders are coy about their intentions and also a little wary of being swallowed up by the more conservative Popular Party. When the English Liberal Party made a decision to join with the Conservatives, voters punished them in the next election go-around. Ciudadanos leaders are concerned that the same thing could happen to them.

 

Whatever the outcome, nothing is going to be quite the same in Spain after Dec. 20. The rightwing will almost certainly lose its majority, and that, in turn, will crimp Rajoy’s efforts to intimidate the media and criminalize mass demonstrations through the Citizens Security Law that the PP rammed through Parliament. It will also mean a setback for the policies of the Troika. And one hopes, an antidote to the growing strength of racist and xenophobic forces in Europe.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Did Turkey Shoot Down That Russian Plane?

Syria: Shooting Down Peace?

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 8, 2015

 

Why did Turkey shoot down that Russian warplane?

 

It was certainly not because the SU-24 posed any threat. The plane is old and slow, and the Russians were careful not to arm it with anti-aircraft missiles. It was not because the Turks are quick on the trigger. Three years ago Turkish President Recap Tayyip Endogen said, “A short-term violation of airspace can never be a pretext for an attack.” And there are some doubts about whether the Russian plane ever crossed into Turkey’s airspace.

 

Indeed, the whole Nov. 24 incident looks increasingly suspicious, and one doesn’t have to be a paranoid Russian to think the takedown might have been an ambush. As Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney (ret), former U.S. Air Force chief of staff commented, “This airplane was not making any maneuvers to attack the [Turkish] territory,” the Turkish action was “overly aggressive,” and the incident “had to be preplanned.”

 

It certainly puzzled the Israeli military, not known for taking a casual approach to military intrusions. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told the press Nov. 29 that a Russian warplane had violated the Israeli border over the Golan Heights. “Russian planes do not intend to attack us, which is why we must not automatically react and shoot them down when an error occurs.”

 

So why was the plane downed? Because, for the first time in four years, some major players are tentatively inching toward a settlement of the catastrophic Syrian civil war, and powerful forces are maneuvering to torpedo that process. If the Russians had not kept their cool, several nuclear-armed powers could well have found themselves in a scary faceoff, and any thoughts of ending the war would have gone a glimmering.

 

There are multiple actors on the Syrian stage and a bewildering number of crosscurrents and competing agendas that, paradoxically, make it both easier and harder to find common ground. Easier, because there is no unified position among the antagonists; harder, because trying to herd heavily armed cats is a tricky business.

 

A short score card on the players:

 

The Russians and the Iranians are supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and fighting a host of extremist organizations ranging from Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (IS). But each country has a different view of what a post civil war Syria might look like. The Russians want a centralized and secular state with a big army. The Iranians don’t think much of “secular,” and they favor militias, not armies.

 

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and most the other Gulf monarchies are trying to overthrow the Assad regime, and are the major supporters of the groups Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are fighting. But while Turkey and Qatar want to replace Assad with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia might just hate the Brotherhood more than it does Assad. And while the monarchies are not overly concerned with the Kurds, Turkey is bombing them, and they are a major reason why Ankara is so deeply enmeshed in Syria.

 

The U.S., France and Great Britain are also trying to overthrow Assad, but are currently focused on fighting the IS using the Kurds as their major allies—specifically the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers Party that the U.S. officially designates as “terrorist.” These are the same Kurds that the Turks are bombing and who have a friendly alliance with the Russians. Indeed, Turkey may discover that one of the price tags for shooting down that SU-24 is the sudden appearance of new Russian weapons for the Kurds, some of which will aimed at the Turks.

 

The Syrian war requires a certain suspension of rational thought.

 

For instance, the Americans are unhappy with the Russians for bombing the anti-Assad Conquest Army, a force dominated by the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria. That would be the same al-Qaeda that brought down the World Trade towers and that the U.S. is currently bombing in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.

 

Suspension of rational thought is not limited to Syria.

 

A number of Arab countries initially joined the U.S. air war against the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, because both organizations are pledged to overthrow the Gulf monarchies. But Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have now dropped out to concentrate their air power on bombing the Houthis in Yemen.

 

The Houthis, however, are by far the most effective force fighting the IS and al-Qaeda in Yemen. Both extremist organizations have made major gains in the last few weeks because the Houthis are too busy defending themselves to take them on.

 

In spite of all this political derangement, however, there are several developments that are pushing the sides toward some kind of peaceful settlement that doesn’t involve regime change in Syria. That is exactly what the Turks and the Gulf monarchs are worried about, and a major reason why Ankara shot down that Russian plane.

 

The first of these developments has been building throughout the summer: a growing flood of Syrians fleeing the war. There are already almost two million in Turkey, and over a million in Jordan and Lebanon, and as many as 900,000 in Europe. Out of 23 million Syrians, some 11 million have been displaced by the war, and the Europeans are worried that many of those 11 million people will end up camping out on the banks of the Seine and the Ruhr. If the war continues into next year, that is a pretty accurate assessment.

 

Hence, the Europeans have quietly shelved their demand that Assad resign as a prerequisite for a ceasefire and are leaning on the Americans to follow suit. The issue is hardly resolved, but there seems to be general agreement that Assad will at least be part of a transition government. At this point, the Russians and Iranians are insisting on an election in which Assad would be a candidate because both are wary of anything that looks like “regime change.” The role Assad might play will be a sticking point, but probably not an insurmountable one.

 

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are adamant that Assad must go, but neither of them is in the driver’s seat these days. While NATO supported Turkey in the Russian plane incident, according to some of the Turkish press many of its leading officials consider Erdogan a loose cannon. And Saudi Arabia—whose economy has been hard hit by the worldwide fall in oil prices—is preoccupied by its Yemen war that is turning into a very expensive quagmire.

 

The second development is the Russian intervention, which appears to have changed things on the ground, at least in the north, where Assad’s forces were being hard pressed by the Conquest Army. New weapons and airpower have dented a rebel offensive and resulted in some gains in the government’s battle for Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

 

Russian bombing also took a heavy toll on the Turkmen insurgents in the Bayirbucak region, the border area that Turkey has used to infiltrate arms, supplies and insurgents into Syria.

 

The appearance of the Russians essentially killed Turkey’s efforts to create a “no fly zone” on its border with Syria, a proposal that the U.S. has never been enthusiastic about. Washington’s major allies, the Kurds, are strongly opposed to a no fly zone because they see it as part of Ankara’s efforts to keep the Kurds from forming an autonomous region in Syria.

 

The Bayirbucak area and the city of Jarabulus are also the exit point for Turkey’s lucrative oil smuggling operation, apparently overseen by one of Erdogan’s son, Bilal. The Russians have embarrassed the Turks by publishing satellite photos showing miles of tanker trucks picking up oil from IS-controlled wells and shipping it through Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

 

“The oil controlled by the Islamic State militants enters Turkish territory on an industrial scale,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Nov. 30. “We have every reason to believe that the decision to down our plane was guided by a desire to insure the security of this oil’s delivery routes to ports where they are shipped in tankers.”

 

Erdogan did not get quite the response he wanted from NATO following the shooting down of the SU-24. While the military alliance backed Turkey’s defense of its “sovereignty,” NATO then called for a peaceful resolution and de-escalation of the whole matter.

 

At a time when Europe needs a solution to the refugee crisis, and wants to focus its firepower on the organization the killed 130 people in Paris, NATO cannot be happy that the Turks are dragging them into a confrontation with the Russians, and making the whole situation a lot more dangerous than it was before the Nov. 24 incident.

 

The Russians have now deployed their more modern SU-34 bombers and armed them with air-to-air missiles. The bombers will now also be escorted by SU-35 fighters. The Russians have also fielded S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems, the latter with a range of 250 miles. The Russians say they are not looking for trouble, but they are loaded for bear should it happen. Would a dustup between Turkish and Russians planes bring NATO—and four nuclear armed nations—into a confrontation? That possibility ought to keep people up at night.

 

Some time around the New Year, the countries involved in the Syrian civil war will come together in Geneva. A number of those will do their level best to derail the talks, but one hopes there are enough sane—and desperate—parties on hand to map out a political solution.

 

It won’t be easy, and who gets to sit at the table has yet to be decided. The Turks will object to the Kurds, the Russians, Iranians and Kurds will object to the Conquest Army, and the Saudis will object to Assad. In the end it could all come apart. It is not hard to torpedo a peace plan in the Middle East.

 

But if the problems are great, failure will be catastrophic, and that may be the glue that keeps the parties together long enough to hammer out a ceasefire, an arms embargo, a new constitution, and internationally supervised elections.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

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