THE OBSERVER

Politics and escapology

SPAIN. PM Rajoy’s downfall is a done deal. Pedro Sánchez, the most unshakeably self-confident man in world politics, initiated a no-confidence vote that has changed the government and the agenda in Spain. In order to become prime minister, first you must wish it with all your might and Sánchez did not falter, not even when his own party’s regional barons toppled him from the PSOE’s leadership and he had to stage a comeback supported by the party’s rank and file. Eventually he regained control of Spain’s socialist party, appointed a loyal leadership and sidelined the president of Andalusia [his main rival] and the dinosaur party leaders [who had also opposed him]. Within just one week, Pedro Sánchez has gone from not even having a seat in parliament to being sworn in as PM before the King of Spain, albeit with neither a Bible nor a cross in sight, as if Spain were a fairly normal, secular country.

Sánchez’s play has left Rajoy, the ultimate escape artist, in shackles. Rajoy had managed to outlive his own political sell-by date so many times before that he was not ready for failure. Following an address ahead of the confidence vote —during which he displayed parliamentary skills, clever rhetoric and political cynicism—, Rajoy vanished from the chamber when he realised that the PNB [the Basque Nationalist Party] would vote against him, arguing that corruption must be nipped in the bud, even though they had helped to pass Rajoy’s budget only a week earlier. The great watchmaker, the man whose mastery of political timing was his greatest political talent for four decades, literally vanished from the stage. Spain’s Partido Popular will have to take stock of this week’s events and Rajoy, the escape artist, should be the first to do so. If his “natural” predisposition hadn’t made him insensitive to what the opposition and the general public believed to be an unacceptable level of corruption, Rajoy might just have managed to break his own fall. But he didn’t. When he became aware that he no longer had a majority support, Mariano Rajoy chose not to step down. Now his party needs to anoint a new leader and the ongoing internal debate suggests [Galician president] Núñez Feijóo may be gaining the upper hand over the recently deposed deputy PM [Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría]. The latter’s crass, violent politics on Catalonia has failed in the mid-term, punishing the Catalan prisoners and voters on the day of the independence referendum, and it has contributed to the demise of her own government.

Spain’s great Houdini has attempted another escape act, but this time he has failed to extricate himself in time. Now he will have to steer his party’s transition until the next general election, which might be held on the same day as the local and regional polls, or perhaps even earlier. The verdict on the case of the destroyed computer hard disks in the Gürtel graft ring, led by former party treasurer Luis Bárcenas, is a ticking time bomb that might go off in September. Pedro Sánchez has taken office speaking of dialogue and with the parliamentary backing of Podemos, the PNB, ERC, the PDECat, Compromís, Bildu and Nueva Canarias. His arrival could be a breath of fresh air in an unbreathable atmosphere. Gestures aren’t policy, but they are a start. The project of a “pluralistic Spain” which Sánchez brought back in his parliamentary speech proved to be a fiasco when the new Catalan Statute was debated and in the following years, all through to the PSOE’s support to Madrid’s direct rule on Catalonia. Yet this new majority has opened a window of opportunity to explore the possibility of a political path.

CATALONIA. The PSOE’s takeover of the Spanish government has coincided in time with the lift of Madrid’s direct rule. The Catalan government’s inauguration was tarnished by the absence of the deposed ministers —presently either in jail or exiled— whose words were read out by family members. The atmosphere was emotionally charged and it was impossible not to reflect on the events of the past few years, especially since last October: the abuse suffered and the people’s dignity on October 1, but also the mistakes, the backstabbing, the imprisonment of leaders and the failure to engage in politics. Despite his medical condition, former Catalan president Pasqual Maragall [who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s several years ago] was a moving sight when he sang along to Cant de la senyera [a patriotic anthem penned by the former leader’s grandfather, Catalan poet Joan Maragall], the symbol of a long, far-reaching struggle at a time of collective frustration.

Among those who chose to miss the event were Ciudadanos, the PP and the CUP (who were also absent two years ago), all of which sought to avoid being seen with JxCat, the PDECat and ERC, as well as the PSC and En Comú, who did send representatives. A new time has begun with possible new majorities that will need to attend to the priorities outlined by president Quim Torra: restitution, Republic and dialogue. Likewise, and above all, they will need to respond to the priorities of the people demonstrating outside, in Barcelona’s Plaça de Sant Jaume: more schools for infants. A cycle has come to an end and Catalonia’s progress demands political action that goes beyond symbolic chest-beating. This time requires independence supporters to be treated as adults.

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