Friday, December 18, 2015

The Four-Way Fight: Partido Popular

The saying "be careful what you wish for" applies well to Mariano Rajoy. Twice over. Be careful of what you might wish for as an alternative. Be careful of what you might wish for in having to put up with him for another four years. When PSOE's Pedro Sánchez branded him "miserable" on Monday night's televised debate, he could have been referring to Mariano the image as opposed to Mariano the incapable of tackling corruption.

There's another saying: "better the devil you know". There may be devilishness lurking within the PP that is still to be rooted out of its darker corners and exposed to the lights of the media as it troops into the anti-corruption judges' chambers. There may be devilishness in the viciousness of austerity, in the spitefulness of gagging freedom of expression, in the zeal of advancing the force of religion against the devil of greater social liberalism and secularism. There may be devilishness in all this. But who might the other devil be? Is it one in disguise or is it one already held up before the electorate with two horns on a populist head?

Let's be clear. When Rajoy won in 2011 he inherited a total mess. Because the PP wasn't a Podemos or Syriza, there was never going to be any challenging of the commands from outside. Economic and financial recovery were on others' terms. The government accepted this and in the process managed to avoid complete humiliation. Bit by bit, the economy was put back together again, as was the banking system. In that Monday night debate, Rajoy reminded Sánchez that Spain had been Europe's sick man in 2011. In fact, it was just one in intensive care, but the drip to the vein over four years has produced a recovery in rather ruder health than others. All things being relative.

One of the arguments of opponents is that recovery has yet to be felt within the real economy. Up to a point this is the case. Yet, indicators have started to suggest that it is being felt. As an example, business and consumer confidence does appear to have increased. The government can also point to improved employment statistics, but opponents rightly draw attention to the seasonal effect on jobs. This is no more the case than in the Balearics. The fact is, however, that seasonality is inherent to the Spanish economy; not all of it, but to a good part of it.

Any government in Spain faces the same problem. This is a country with great differences and imbalance economically. In the southern regions of Andalusia and Extremadura (Murcia as well), there has never been what might be described as true industrialisation. Andalusia, trapped in the seasonality of tourism and of agriculture, has massive unemployment. The magnificence of Seville, Malaga and Granada cannot obscure its weaknesses, which were made far greater when construction collapsed during crisis.

This regional variation, though, goes to the heart of one of Rajoy's biggest failures. Catalonia. The government had every right to seek to prevent secession, but the independence drive was given an enormous boost by Rajoy's total rejection of improved financial terms for Catalonia; indeed, it was what made Artur Mas take the independence plunge. Rajoy is stubborn and he is also unsympathetic. By demeanour he is and also by instinct. A more sympathetic prime minister might have sought to plead with Mas (and to the country as a whole) to join in a project for national regeneration with the promise of a thorough review of not just Catalonia's relationship with the state but all the regions. Pedro Sánchez has made a pledge to move towards federalism, but whatever the arrangement is or might become, Rajoy chose not to make such an appeal to an equally obstinate opponent in Mas or to present himself to the public as a figurehead for renewal. The regional issue will continue to dog whatever government is in power, but it is one that badly needs addressing. Whether the PP is the party to do this is another matter. And whether Rajoy is still around will be another.

It is clear that the PP is going to suffer a calamitous loss of support on Sunday, but it doesn't have to be terminal. But as with terms set out by Europe for recovery, the PP may have to bow to the terms of others, with the C's the most obvious ones to make them. If a pact with the C's is not possible, if the other parties can't find a way of forging a coalition, then the PP may try to govern in minority. But there would be a massive if, along with what would be a very significant minority. Would Congress approve the investiture of Rajoy?

One way or another, he may be left with no choice but to fall on his sword.

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