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Spaniards, Exhausted by Politics, Warm to Life Without a Government

Sunday, October 2, 2016 18:56
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(Before It's News)

A supporter holding a poster of Pedro Sánchez, who stepped down as the leader of the Socialist Party, outside a party meeting in Madrid on Saturday.
Susana Vera / Reuters
By RAPHAEL MINDER and DAVID ZUCCHINO

MADRID — For the past 288 days, Spain has plodded along without an elected national government. For some Spaniards, this is a wonderful thing.
“No government, no thieves,” said Félix Pastor, a language teacher who, like many voters, is fed up with the corruption and scandals that tarnished the two previous governing parties.
Mr. Pastor, a wiry, animated 59-year-old, said Spain could last without a government “until hell freezes over” because politicians were in no position to do more harm.
After two grueling national elections in six months, and with a third vote possible in December, no party has won enough seats or forged the coalition needed to form a government. For the first time in Spain’s four decades as a modern democracy, this country of 47 million people has a caretaker government.
That has produced an unprecedented public spectacle: Politicians scheme and plot but reject the difficult compromises needed to form a government. Voters watch ruefully with a mix of fascination and contempt.
On Saturday, the Socialists’ leader, Pedro Sánchez, stepped down in a move that could open the way for his party to agree to the re-election of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and a government led by his conservative Popular Party.
But while the Socialists’ revolt could break the deadlock, it may do little to heal Spaniards’ frustration with a crisis that has further eroded their faith in politicians.
Spain’s leaders warned that having no government would mean chaos and deprivation. Instead, more than anything, the crisis seems to have offered a glimpse of life if politicians simply stepped out of the way. For many here, it has not been all that bad.
“Spain would be just fine if we got rid of most of the politicians and three-fourths of government employees,” Rafael Navarro, 71, said inside his tiny storefront pharmacy in Madrid. Too little government is better than too much, he said.
In some ways, this is a phantom crisis for ordinary Spaniards. There has been no United States-style government shutdown. There are no mounds of uncollected garbage, no unpaid police officers, no shuttered ministries, no public trains or buses halted.
Budget money is still flowing. Government ministries are functioning. Social service recipients and civil servants are being paid. Even if no new government has been formed when the 2016 national budget expires this fall, the old budget will simply become the new budget for 2017.
But government is paralyzed in other ways. Nobody is proposing legislation, debating international affairs or even rotating Spain’s ambassadors. Funding for many infrastructure and government projects is frozen. And nationalist movements in Catalonia and the Basque region continue to roil national politics.
Spain has been in political limbo since last October, when Mr. Rajoy called a general election while he held a parliamentary majority. His Popular Party then won the most votes in December and June, but did not win a majority. It now holds 137 of the 350 seats in Parliament.
The stalemate has come at an opportune moment. After a severe recession ended in 2013, Spain’s economy rebounded. Growth is forecast to be 2.9 percent this year, almost twice the 1.6 percent eurozone average expected by the European Commission. Interest and energy rates are at historic lows.
Spain, a tourism superpower, expects 74 million visitors this year, six million more than last year, as terrorism fears elsewhere send visitors here. Cafes and museums are crowded, and hotels are booked solid.
But after trudging to the polls twice already in the last year, weary voters are in no mood to vote again. The political calendar dictates a vote on Christmas if no agreement to form a government can be reached by Oct. 31.
The impasse has dragged on so long that “it’s like ‘Groundhog Day’ every day,” said Pedro Rodríguez, an assistant professor of international relations at a private university in Madrid.
Until the recent and chaotic revolt within the Socialist Party, said Nacho Cardero, the editor of El Confidencial, a news website, reader clicks on stories about the crisis had dropped steadily.
“People are exhausted,” Mr. Cardero said. “They don’t want to hear one more thing from these politicians.”
Spaniards were hopeful for better government in December, after two new parties, for the first time, won a third of the seats in Parliament. That set off a political free-for-all because no single party has been able to muster a majority.
Nine months later, many voters complain that the new parties have adopted the same cynical and corrosive politics practiced under the entrenched two-party system.
 
A crowd of Mr. Sánchez’s supporters gathered outside the Socialist Party meeting on Saturday.
Susana Vera / Reuters
The two traditional parties — the conservative Popular Party and the Socialist Party — could have agreed on a new government, but they refused to talk to each other.
“Negotiating or giving concessions is perceived as weakness,” said Antonio Roldán, a lawmaker from the upstart Ciudadanos party.
Manuel de la Rocha Vázquez, an economic adviser in the Socialist Party, said Spain was so polarized that politics had turned almost into a brawl. “There are only insults and blame and arrogance,” he said.
In one survey by the polling company Metroscopia, respondents chose the same few words to describe their feelings about the political deadlock: disappointment, indignation, shame, weariness and deception.
In the same survey, Spaniards blamed politicians rather than the party system for the impasse, 58 percent to 20 percent.
Other surveys suggest that a December election would produce the same result as the previous two: a Popular Party victory but no majority, according to Metroscopia’s president, José Juan Toharia.
Angela Jover Pascual, 26, a waitress and mother of two, said she could not even remember which small party she had voted for in June. She said she had voted only as a protest against the bigger parties.
Asked whether she would be ready to vote for a third time in one year, Ms. Jover Pascual replied: “No. It’s useless.”
Mr. Rajoy, the caretaker prime minister, has been able to sit back as the Socialist Party tears itself apart. His party’s powerful political machine and reliable conservative and elderly voters confer an advantage, especially if other frustrated voters stay home.
While still a low-grade fever for now, however, the crisis could yet flare into a debilitating illness.
Some economists warn that a day of reckoning is coming. Spain’s debt and unemployment rates, for instance, are among the highest in Europe.
Madrid faces a fine of 5 billion euros, about $5.6 billion, if it fails to comply this year with its agreed deficit target from the European Commission of 4.6 percent of gross domestic product.
“We have really painted ourselves into a corner,” said José María de Areilza, a law professor in Madrid.
For now, things are fairly stable in part because Spain grants considerable powers to its 17 regional governments. They have continued to provide health care, education and other pillars of daily life.
“For a Spanish citizen, the most relevant government is the regional one,” said Santiago Lago Peñas, an economics professor in the Galicia region in northwest Spain.
But deep within government institutions in Madrid, the crisis is inflicting pain.
Joaquín Sánchez Sanz, the director of a nuclear fusion lab for the government agency Ciemat, said he spent about 40 percent of every day dealing with cutbacks imposed by the caretaker government.
Just five days before a contract was to be signed to supply cooling equipment to a lab in Japan, the project was canceled, Mr. Sánchez Sanz said. Moreover, every agency contract not already signed was canceled.
He does not blame the government crisis for every cutback, but it has created a climate of uncertainty.
“If you cannot honor your contracts, next time they want collaboration, they might look somewhere else because now we are not credible,” Mr. Sánchez Sanz said.
Many voters in outlying regions view the political fight in Madrid as a constant but distant irritant.
“We already knew that politicians were corrupt, but now we also see that they can’t even make politics work,” said Ana Cancela, a civil servant who voted on Sept. 25 in Galicia’s regional elections in Santiago de Compostela, 370 miles from Madrid.
Nationwide, wrangling over how to form the next government has many voters wondering: What is the point?
“A lot of people said we would go to hell if we didn’t form a government,” said Ignacio Escolar, the editor of the news website eldiario.es. “But we’re still here.”

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