Austerity forcing regions to reject Madrid's power
The dramatic state-wide devolution of powers that followed has been praised as a deepening of local democracy, and even as the source of Spain’s rapid modernisation and increasing prosperity over three decades. Others argue that, in many regions, it has been efficient only as a facade for preserving caciquismo, the system of political manipulation and economic corruption by local “barons” that had long afflicted many parts of the country. Both arguments carry weight. Many of the most successful countries in the world, including Germany, the US, Brazil, India and Australia, devolve a great deal of power to regional or state governments of one kind or another. Some of Spain’s post-dictatorship dynamism undoubtedly derives from local reinvigoration and initiative, based on the new funding available from the autonomous governments.
In both the Basque country and Catalonia, despite ongoing conflicts, strong cultural identities were consolidated around world-class economies.
On the other hand, graft and abuse of power have been rife in many autonomous governments. There have been notorious cases of infrastructural vanity projects.
The most egregious example is Castellón airport. It was opened last year by the local PP leader Carlos Fabra, and the then first minister of Valencia, Francisco Camps. The internal financial crisis in this autonomous region has been compared to that of Greece.
To this day, no aircraft has used the airport’s extravagant facilities – unless one includes the one sculpted above a massive statue of Fabra himself, in a grandiose gesture worth of Kim Il Sung.
Meanwhile, many in Spain, and in Brussels, fear that hidden deficits in some of the autonomous governments’ accounts may be as destabilising as the black holes in the Spanish banking system. This explains the very energetic recent attempts by the Spanish finance and public administration minister, Cristóbal Montoro, to whip them into line by insisting on a very tight public deficit target of 1.5 per cent for autonomous governments this year, reducing to 0.1 per cent for 2014.
He is already imposing a central government audit on eight of them. He has warned of “intervention” by Madrid, analogous to intervention by the troika in bailed-out EU member states, on any that do not put their house in order fast. The PP government fears, with some justification, that if it does not send in invigilation teams to recalcitrant regions – colloquially known as “the Men in Black” – then Brussels will.
But all these measures are sparking the aforementioned regional rebellion, and it is hard to see how this impasse can be broken. Nevertheless, some regions are in such dire straits that they are appealing to Madrid for internal bailout funds, though they fear the further conditions the government will set. Valencia was forced to take this step last Friday, and Murcia followed suit yesterday.
Hard-right centralists in the PP see this crisis as a long-desired opportunity to dismantle the whole autonomy system, despite the many local benefits the party has garnered from it. However, that possibility is in turn pushing increasing numbers of Basques and Catalans towards the independence option. This reawakens the spectre of the break-up of Spain, the very spectre the “State of Autonomies” structure was supposed to have laid to rest forever.