Slow progress

Though there must have been a sigh of relief in the Popular Party headquarters last Thursday, when Mariano Rajoy’s 2017 budget narrowly survived defeat in a parliamentary vote, the Spanish prime minister would be wrong to think he thereby passed some kind of test. A vote on amendments to the budget proposed by Rajoy’s opponents split congress down the middle, with 175 in favour and 175 against; as a result, the changes have been abandoned and the absurdly-belated spending plan is expected to be approved - halfway through the year it supposedly covers.

Far from giving Spanish conservatives cause for back-slapping, the vote only shows how ineffectual Spain’s political system has remained since last October, when a new administration was finally formed after two general elections and ten months of deadlock.

Indeed, Rajoy only secured the Basque Nationalist Party’s backing of his budget by promising the region a tax rebate worth over €1 billion and investment for a high-speed rail link. The PP still needs to secure one more vote for the budget to be passed, by which point it will practically be time to start writing the 2018 spending plan.

This snail-paced, knife-edge situation is surely enough to keep any realistic politician up long into the night, yet Spain’s budget minister Cristobal Montoro cheerfully announced that the vote proved “this government is able to make agreements”. Far from it. What it shows is that legislation now takes months of debate to pass, and only then receives the necessary backing because Rajoy dishes out favours to smaller parties in order to secure their desperately-needed votes. Only according to a Spanish politician’s notion of effective governance is this situation anything other than lamentable.

Relatively uncontroversial as the 2017 budget is (or should have been), last week’s vote came shortly after a new PP corruption scandal revitalised the hostility of Rajoy’s opponents. In April, several PP politicians - including the party’s former Madrid president, Ignacio González - were arrested after allegedly misusing public funds from Canal Isabel II, a publicly-owned water company. The party’s core voters are largely indifferent to such cases, but they outrage Rajoy’s political enemies: indeed, each fresh PP corruption scandal further undermines the prime minister’s already-tenuous grasp on power.

And then there’s the ongoing unemployment issue. Defending his 2017 budget in the parliamentary debate that preceded last week’s vote, Rajoy spoke of the importance of creating jobs and maintaining the steady expansion of Spain’s GDP.

The PP government has been creating around half a million new jobs a year, but many of them are worthless. Recent data from Eurostat indicated that 90% of new contracts signed from the beginning of this year through to the end of April were temporary; fewer than 6% of them, by contrast, were for permanent, fulltime positions.

The more you think about it, the more it seems that Rajoy was lucky that last week’s budgetary vote was as close as it was.