2015 is the year of the election in Spain. We have municipal and federal elections on May 24 and a good possibility of a general election in November or December. There is also the small matter of the parliamentary election in Catalonia on September 27, and which is being styled as a de facto independence referendum. Official campaigning has not yet begun for any of the plebiscites but that hasn’t stopped party machines being on high alert since the end of last year. The parties in power, whether on a local or national level, have also been doing what they seem do best: doling out the pre-election goodies. (They’ve also been making promises like a hard-drinkin’, high-rollin’, low-whorin’ scoundrel on his wedding day — promises that will be broken before the ink is dry on the ballot paper — but that’s a matter for another blog.)
Even if one never opened a newspaper or watched a news bulletin on TV or spoke to work colleagues or friends about matters electoral it would be as plain as the nose on one’s face that 2015 was an election year; all one has to do is walk the streets or drive the highways and byways of the land to witness the harvest of goodies spilling out of those wishing to be re-elected’s municipal, federal or national cornucopias. Indeed, the proverbial Martian landing in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor’s first impression would no doubt include noting of the imminence of elections. Parks are being replanted on a scale not seen since the Pope’s last visit. Potholes are being filled in with the verve of an inverted Tolkein dwarf. Road markings are being ladled onto the tarmac. In the country and in the city. Those zebra crossings and parking bays are blinding in their brilliance and would be a danger to public safety were it not for the omnipresence of traffic cops outdoing the traffic lights on intersections, with their whistles and Mussolini-sharp hand signals. Minor roads are being re-done. Major roads as well. There are policemen everywhere. Outside schools. Blocking the entrances to public buildings. On patrol. Keeping you and me safe. The voters are being given a clear message: Your Town Hall/Federal Parliament/National Parliament Is Working For You — Re-elect Us.
I’m not imagining this Spanish-as-tortilla-de-patata phenomenon. The figures are there. Almost €5 billion will be spent by central government on public works this year, an increase of 4.8% on 2014. Total spending on infrastructure will see an increase of 8.8% over last year and represent a spending of almost €9 billion. In both cases these are the first budgetary increases in such spending since the start of the crisis in 2008. Not only will this spending be channelled into ubiquitous road painting and highly visible renovation of public amenities, it is also going to see politicians zipping from one side of the country to the other as part of their ribbon-cutting duties. So many new roads and train lines will be inaugurated that economists are predicting a shortage of both ribbons and those outsized scissors needed for their cutting.
€2 billion alone has been set aside for roads in this year’s budget (a 3% increase). One highway, the A-8, known as the Autovía del Cantábrico, the construction of which began twenty-five years ago, will be finished just in time for election. The last stretch of the equally grandly named Autovía del Mediterráneo (A-7) will also be tarred and lined just in time. Such a host of roads will appear prior to May 2015 that Spanish GPS providers are working around the clock to update their maps. But it’s not just road maps that will need updating: if you’re one of those sad people who carries around train timetables in their wallet it is time to consign these to the dustbin: one-thousand kilometres of high-speed train lines will be constructed this year (61% of the increased funding for infrastructure goes on high-speed lines). An AVE, as the high-velocity train is called in Spain, station in your town or hamlet is, as Tony Soprano would say, good for business. And people with happy hearts and heavy wallets mean ticks on ballot papers. That’s the winning formula of Spain’s love affair with its mushrooming AVE network.
Of course you can’t talk about pre-election goodies without mention of jobs. Governments and town halls are huge employers and have an almost limitless capacity to be at the forefront of high-visibility goodie distribution in the form of jobs for the boys (and gals). Or had. The crisis, which forced central government to put an almost complete halt to public service recruitment, brought much of this practice to an end. However, a pre-election fudge by the ruling Partido Popular allowing replacement rates of 50% in the case of “priority” posts instead of the crisis level of 10% (the definition of priority will be shown to have higher elasticity than Kim Kardashian’s briefs) once more gives administrations the ability to create a feel-good factor and demonstrate that a vote for them means a vote for jobs. All over Spain presidents of federal governments are rushing to the podium to breathlessly announce that their state is back hiring: e.g. José Antonio Monago of Extremadura has announced the rolling out of 7,000 local government jobs, Valencia’s Alberto Fabra a whopping 75,000, etc, etc.
But there has to be more than ribbon cutting and job announcements to get the populace’s juices flowing and asses moving to the voting booth (to vote for you) bright and early on election day. Voters have had their bellyful of the mundane. Seven years of crisis and all that. It’s not all about bread and butter issues. Isn’t there something more that can be presented to them to get their hands moving from your opponent’s box on the ballot paper to yours? Something to inspire national pride, belief in the country, in your party — in you. How about magnificent and inspiring works of civil engineering that will create a clamour of admiration and awe on a global scale? How about the three-thousand-metre-long bridge spanning the Bay of Cadiz, the major feat of construction to be completed in Europe this year? Or, if you are the president of Galicia, your particular take on inspiring the citizenry is the hiring of a crack crew of cineasts (crack to the tune of three-hundred grand) to shoot an Enrique Iglesias video showcasing the beauty of your region. I’ve nothing against Señor Iglesias, but surely a better promo clip for the touristic delights of Galicia could be envisaged sans his Auto-Tuned warblings?
I’m going to conclude on another question: does all this work? Are the Spanish populace so gullible — and thick — that when they see a freshly painted zebra crossing or newly installed bed of petunias on the roundabout they pass every day they begin to think that the politicians they have been bad-mouthing since the previous elections are turning things around to the extent that they merit a second chance come polling day? In spite of what we say about them, politicians are no fools. They wouldn’t be wasting their time micro-managing the asphalting of back roads or brightening up the local swimming pool if they didn’t know votes were in it. As well as the traditional sliminess and cunning they have always possessed, politicians now also have the benefit of science: focus groups, polls and social media monitoring. So they know empirically that the pre-election policy of goodie-giving works. But the electorate are not so innocent that they don’t know they’re being played. I believe what we see pre-election in Spain is a cat and mouse game of promises and goodies from the politicians and a dialectical reaction from voters. They expect the promises and goodies and even though they abhor them, a no-show in terms of porkies and newly lined roads would be such a demonstration of contempt for the electorate that no votes would be garnered. So even if a brave party stuck its neck out and said “This year no promises. No goodies. Just vote for us based on policies” it would be such a giant leap from the norm that the electorate’s reaction would be puzzled rejection.
In Spain pre-election goodies are so ingrained, so expected that they’ve come to be seen as the way of operating in politics, part of the natural cycle. Nothing for four years then, boom, a storm of goodies. Feast or famine. A man in Aragon whose house was flooded by the recent bursting of its banks by the River Ebro was interviewed on the television news and showed a very blasé attitude to the damage done. And why wouldn’t he? “We’ll work to get everything back to normal,” he said as he stood in three feet of water, “but with a bit of luck, seeing that it’s an election year, I’m sure we’ll get emergency funding.”