Bullfighting debate enters arena of Spanish politics

Controversial sport of bullfighting is lumped in with a past Spain’s left wing seeks to obliterate

This weekend marks the climax of Las Fallas, the annual festivities in the Mediterranean city of Valencia made famous by the giant papier-mâché puppets of famous personalities which are paraded through the streets before being burned.

However, bullfighting is arguably an equally important aspect of Las Fallas, and by the end of this year’s celebrations about 70 animals will have been killed in Valencia’s legendary bullring.

That might suggest that bullfighting is in rude health, as would the fact that several thousand people took to the streets of Valencia last Sunday to voice their support for "los toros". But this deeply traditional pastime is very much on the defensive as it faces economic obstacles, animal rights campaigns and, perhaps most crucially, political change across Spain.

The tone of a manifesto read out by local bullfighter Enrique Ponce to the demonstrators in Valencia reflected the industry's siege mentality.


Traditional passion

“We are Spaniards who are horrified by war, child exploitation and social inequality,” it said, in a clear bid to soften the bloodthirsty image critics have of bullfighting. The communiqué added that “we cannot permit that anyone should come along now . . . to tell us that this passion of our parents and grandparents is perverse or cruel.”

Also present were a platoon of other top-flight bullfighters, including El Juli, Morante de la Puebla and José Tomás, regarded as the world’s most bankable matador.

The bullfighting correspondent of El País newspaper, Antonio Lorca, welcomed the show of strength.

“It’s true that bullfighting has been limping along, having lost its bearings,” he wrote. “[But] on Sunday in Valencia the bullfighting world decided to emerge from the trenches where it has been crouching like a coward.”

Among bullfighting’s problems, he explained, are that it lacks leadership and has been incapable of stemming a drop-off in spectators in recent years.

The economic crisis which hit Spain at the end of the last decade was disastrous for the sector. Many middle-class fans stayed away, unable to keep up with high ticket prices, and impoverished town halls started cancelling the annual summer fiestas they had previously subsidised.

While 3,650 bullfights took place in 2007, according to the Spanish government, by 2014 there were fewer than 1,900.

A growing awareness of animal rights among Spaniards also seems to have undermined the popularity of los toros.

Only 19 per cent of Spaniards aged between 16 and 65 are in favour of bullfighting, according to an Ipsos MORI poll taken in December, down from 30 per cent three years earlier.

Opposition has risen to 58 per cent.

"This increase in awareness has meant that there aren't many people now who are reluctant to declare themselves against bullfighting," said Marta Esteban, of the Torture is not Culture animal rights platform. "That wasn't the case before."

But bullfighting’s greatest immediate challenge lies in the political arena.

In the spring of 2015, a new generation of left-leaning politicians took control of cities across Spain, including Valencia, Madrid and Barcelona, often led by the new anti-austerity Podemos party.

Bullfighting's most outspoken defender has been the right-wing governing Popular Party (PP), currently assailed by corruption scandals and among the parties jockeying to form a new government following December's inconclusive election. For many on the "new left", bullfighting represents a side of Spain that they want to sweep away: one that is conservative, provincial and ridden with cronyism.

Earlier this month, the regional wing of Podemos in the Balearic Islands presented a proposal to ban bullfighting there; the southern city of Córdoba has withdrawn funding for its annual fiestas; and Valencia mayor Joan Ribó responded to the demonstration in his city on Sunday by suggesting that Spain should follow Portugal's lead and not kill the animal during bullfights.

Previously, in 2012, Catalan nationalists outlawed bullfighting in their region and Basque separatists in the town hall of San Sebastián imposed a three-year ban on bullfights on coming to power there.

"[These politicians] want to rail against Spain and its values," Pedro Giraldo, a retired bullfighter, told The Irish Times.

“It’s demagoguery, it’s cheap politics,” he added. “They say they want to fix the country but actually they want to screw it up.”

Giraldo believes bullfighting’s problems have been exaggerated and says that fiestas in big cities like Valencia still sell out, even if the industry is suffering in smaller towns.

Matador Serafín Marín claims bullfighting’s politicisation is artificial, a ploy to win votes.

Broad church

“There are people from the extreme left, the moderate left and the right who like bullfighting,” he told

The Irish Times

. “I’ve got friends who are more obsessed with bullfighting than me and they’re on the hard left.”

Sunday's demonstration in Valencia, he adds, shows that bullfighting is still very much alive and kicking. But with Spain currently seeing major social and political change, the tradition of los toros will have a fight on its hands if it wants to survive.