For some time now, there has been a growing concern about the seemingly limitless powers of the regional governments – and it wasn’t just a case of opposition politicians trying to undermine the party in power in the regions.
Opinion polls over the past few years have shown that about 70 per cent of the ordinary men and women in the street also want to see regional government powers curtailed. It doesn’t make sense to have 17 different education systems, which has led to a good education depending on accident of birth. Children born in the north of Spain consistently do better at school than kids in Andalucia or Extremadura, the two regions with the worst education records. Ditto the health system, with Andalucia and Extremadura at the bottom of the list here as well. Why should doctors and other health workers want to work in these two regions when they can work in other regions where the pay is often considerably better, filling the vacancies left there by the increasing number of doctors and nurses who have emigrated to other EU countries where the salaries are even better? And so it goes on.
But now it looks as if something good may come out of the political tsunami resulting from the May 22nd regional and local elections and the ongoing economic crisis. Many councils changed hands after that election, usually the Socialists making way for the Partido Popular. It was a huge victory for the PP, but it had an equally huge sting in the tail. The simple truth is that the councils, with few exceptions, are bankrupt and the government in Madrid may finally be forced to do what it should have done years ago – reorganize the regional government model to eliminate the duplication of powers which has led to the ridiculous situation where Spain in fact has 18 prime ministers, 18 health ministers, and so on down the line. All the regional top officials have to enjoy the same lifestyle as their counterparts in Madrid – fancy cars, mobile phones (which they also distribute freely to their henchmen), several credit cards (the Junta’s tourism delegate to the Malaga provincial government apparently had the use of more than 40 credit cards). And who foots the bill – the Junta in Sevilla, the provincial governments (yes, every province has its own government), or the local councils? Where do they get their money from? EU subsidies, the money the government in Madrid is committed to giving the regions, and the taxpayers. And we won’t go into the murky area of the backhanders that these people have been receiving for years for one favour or another, most of which lined their own pockets.
I’m not making up any of this – I’m merely passing on bits of information I glean from op-ed articles and news stories published in the national and local press.
The situation in Andalucia has been made even worse by the fact that the Socialists have governed the region since it became “autonomous” 30 years ago, and most of the local councils have been in their hands, with a smattering governed by or in alliance with the Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left) or the Partido Andalucista. Councils, or provincial governments like Malaga, that are governed by the PP get very short shrift from the Junta, which punishes them by dragging its feet when it comes to subsidising or funding much needed infrastructure works. The other side of the coin is that when the PP was in power from 1996 to 2004, it got its own back by making life difficult for the Junta.
Unfortunately we won’t know just how indebted Andalucia is until the regional election is held next March but I’m afraid we can expect the worst. I dare bet any money that when the full extent of the corruption in Sevilla is revealed by the PP victory which everyone is predicting, it will make the so-called Gurtel corruption case, which led to the downfall of former Valencia premier Francisco Camps last week, look like child’s play.
Mind you, a PP victory is not an absolute cert. The government has just announced that it will start paying some 600,000 people under the age of 30 €400 a month if they enrol in training courses. The scheme is to be implemented closer to the general election in March, which will coincide with the regional election in Andalucia. And get this, the scheme will be launched in Andalucia before it goes national. How's that for a bare-faced vote buying?
Unfortunately for the Socialists, everyone remembers similar attempts in the past – the so-called one-off “baby cheque” of €2,500 which was one of Zapatero's first pay-offs to be axed. Another was the withdrawal of the €461 to unemployed people who had run out of dole credits. The PP is going to have to make some painful cuts when they take power, as Aznar had to in 1996, when he inherited a similar economic situation from Felipe Gonzalez. (pictured)However, people know that the PP doesn't give with one hand and take away with the other, as Zapatero has done consistently since 2004.