Sunday, February 27, 2011

Picnic At Hanging Rock: Balearics Day celebrations

Tuesday will be a public holiday in the Balearics. 1 March is Balearics Day. It commemorates the establishment of regional autonomy in the islands. In gestures symbolic of what many decry as a lack of urgency and a propensity for inertia in the Balearics, everywhere will be shut. Oh come on, be fair, there hasn't been a public holiday for a few weeks, and it's ages until Easter.

Official autonomy is 28 years old, 28 years of a degree of self-government which the Balearics enjoy, along with the other 16 regions of Spain and the African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. The autonomy of the regions has given Spain arguably the most decentralised system of government in Europe. It is one that was created as a buffer to both separatism and extreme-right centralism. This may have been the idealistic theory, but it hasn't stopped either of these competing objectives being pursued. The granting of autonomy may also have been a means of making democracy ever more local, but it hasn't stopped the democratic process being undermined by the prevalence of corruption, and not only in the Balearics.

A year older, but not a year wiser. On Balearics Day 2010, President Antich's address included an apology for the corruption that was abroad in the islands, predominantly in Mallorca. He had sought a remedy, that of removing his party's coalition partners, the Unió Mallorquina party, from government. A year on, what can he say now? The UM is in political exile from government, but it continues to be cast as the most rotten of the apples in the far from ripely sweet barrel of Mallorca's politics. The latest scandal to rock the UM, the operation monikered "Picnic" by the anti-corruption forces, sours the celebrations of the Balearics Day anniversary, turns them into a picnic at the hanging rock for discredited politicians.

Antich has no need to apologise this year for the actions of the UM. It's not his party. Perhaps he should apologise for the corruption of the body politic as a whole, but contrition should be unnecessary. He, as much as innocent citizens who try to lead honest existences in the face of endemic dishonesty, is as much a victim of a societal malaise that allows the virus of corruption to insinuate itself into every organ of the Mallorcan body.

The UM is the most visible source of scandal, and it is also the most visible of the political organisations that autonomy spawned. It was born out of the drive to regionalism, having been formed in 1982, a year before autonomy. Its benign nationalism, mixed with a centrist, pro-business philosophy, seemed well-conceived. It still is, but it has been undone by the party having been exposed as ultimately self-serving. Its belief that a change in logo could distance itself from court hearings involving party grandees has been revealed as idiotic. It now contemplates a name change as a way of making it appear whiter than the black of envelopes stashed with cash of the past: a rose thorn by any other name.

If the responsibility for correct behaviour that was meant to come with autonomy has been hard to deliver, the buffers to the polarities of separatism and centralism have begun to come under pressure. Catalonian ambitions for independence and a more assertive Catalanism have impelled the nationalist parties of the UM and the PSM (Mallorcan socialists), together with other parties to the left, towards a clearer separatist agenda. Against this, there is the greater Spanishness of the right, one of the Partido Popular and the UPyD (Unión Progreso y Democracia), while into the mix, from different ends of the spectrum, have emerged a more militant and radicalised Catalanism as well as a far-right, neo-fascist centralism.

28 years of autonomy, and the regional organisation of government is under great discussion and strain, and not just within the Balearics. The Zapatero government has raised doubts about regionalism, not on political grounds per se but because of the cost. The Partido Popular, through both its current leader Mariano Rajoy and his predecessor José María Aznar, have made it more of a specifically political and constitutional issue, Aznar having gone so far as to suggest that the current system of autonomy is not viable. He has railed against what he calls regions' pretensions to become "micro-states".

It is against the background, therefore, of democracy-weakening corruption, of the tensions of state versus separatism and of national parties' doubts that Balearics Day takes place. The regional government has expected 40,000 people to participate in celebratory events from Friday until 1 March, and no doubt they will have. But celebrating what exactly? The Balearics region is something of an artifice as it is. Pride, identity reside more within the individual islands rather than with the archipelago. Yet there was, in 1983, pride in and passion for autonomy, an expression of a new model of political self-determination that had been considered in the years before the Civil War but which didn't come to pass. Pride has subsequently been diminished by misbehaviour; passion supplanted by a rising radicalism.

28 years of autonomy, and the cracks are there. They are the fissures, the gorges of the eroding rock of regionalism over which the threesome of the celebrators, the corrupt and the politicians clamber. In the story and film of the hanging rock, three disappeared. On Balearics Day, you wonder what might disappear. Whither autonomy?

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