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Bare-faced cheek gives Spain air of election fever

While the opposition Popular Party seeks to avoid being cast as extremist and win power on the back of the Socialists’ economic record, some of its members don’t seem to get the message.


Victim of cheek: Sexist abuse aimed at Leire Pajín highlights Mariano Rajoy's difficulty in keeping his Popular Party under control. Photo: PSOE.

Sexist taunts, allegations of extremism and the hint of an economic plan – it must be an election campaign.

That, at least, is the overwhelming suspicion in the wake of Spanish politics’ recent “cheekgate” affair, which saw the Popular Party mayor of Valladolid, Javier de la Riva, comment of newly instated Health Minister Leire Pajín that “every time I see that face and those cheeks , I have the same thought.”  De la Riva’s curious train of thought also led him to describe Pajín as “a very well prepared girl who is able and discreet, and will dish out condoms left and right wherever she goes.”

Pajín, who at 34 is the youngest member of the Cabinet, has for some time been the target of right-wing ridicule – sometimes due to her own clumsiness, but often simply due to old-fashioned sexism. This time, however, even the palaeolithic De la Riva had to apologise for his remarks in the face of a media storm and Socialist demands for him to resign.

For Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the interior minister who was also made deputy prime minister in the recent Cabinet shake-up, this was further evidence of “the genetic sexism” of the PP.  It now seems perhaps only fitting that the Equality Ministry was abolished in that reshuffle, given the vitriol and sexual innuendo that have been aimed at Pajín in recent days since taking up her new ministerial post.

Rubalcaba’s accusation may be over the top (although those who remember other similar episodes, such as former PP Prime Minister José María Aznar gleefully sliding a pen into a female journalist’s bosom, might disagree). However, what this affair does illustrate is that the political atmosphere is heating up, ahead of key Catalan elections in November, other regional votes in spring 2011 and beyond that, the 2012 general election.

It also highlights how the PP continues to wrestle with its own muddy identity as those ballots loom. The De la Riva gaff may have been representative of a mindset of a large part of the Popular Party (and its voters) but it is not the image party leader Mariano Rajoy wants to present to the country.

El País commentator Josep Ramoneda insists the PP still has far-right blood pumping in its heart, with Rajoy merely playing at being a 21st century moderate. “It’s quite clear that when Rajoy breaks his silences, the good-natured and tolerant person his cronies talk about does not appear, but rather the pure, hardline Spanish right,” he noted in a recent column.

The truth is probably more nuanced than that. Having never formally broken with the dictatorial regime that was so instrumental in its founding, the PP is inevitably vulnerable to “extremist” jibes. The likes of De la Riva merely reinforce the notion of an undemocratic party stuck in the past. So do others such as the PP’s Catalan leader Alicia Sánchez Camacho, who has cynically called for illegal immigrants to be struck off civil registers so they cannot receive basic health or education services.

And yet, whatever Rajoy’s instincts, he knows that being overtly xenophobic or standing too close to the Catholic Church on certain social issues will be counterproductive and simply mobilise Socialist voters in the coming elections, thus jeopardising the PP’s 14-point lead in the polls. Given his track record, Rajoy’s failure to muzzle the more extreme voices in his party is indicative more of his lack of authority and a mistrust of his own image than hardline, right-wing zeal.

It’s the economy, tonto

The PP leader’s strategy as he seeks to avoid a third consecutive general election defeat to Zapatero in 2012 is clear: the economy. And on October 26, Rajoy finally gave a strong hint about his own plans in that area, after coyly avoiding details throughout this economic crisis.

“We have to develop an aggressive liberalising agenda so that productivity grows in Spain, boosting competitiveness,” Rajoy said. This liberalising –or in some cases privatising– push would include railways, ports, airports, energy and telecommunications, he said, while also calling for a scaling back of the state in regional autonomies.

In his caution not to scare voters with more details, Rajoy has not given figures or details of where he would make cuts in his economic plan. After all, he is seeking to secure victory in 2012 on the back of the Socialists’ failings rather than his own proposals. Rajoy’s problem is that while he tries to keep the country’s mind on the economy, too many of his party colleagues are coming across as racist, or sexist, or are still complaining about the 2004 election defeat, which they insist was “stolen”.

Convincing Spaniards that he could manage the economy better than the Socialists is a realistic goal for the opposition leader. Reining in the more extreme and outlandish voices from his party on other issues will be more of a challenge.

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Published: Oct 28 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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5 Comments for “Bare-faced cheek gives Spain air of election fever”

  1. Firstly, I think you got the translation wrong: I'm pretty sure the mayor of Valladolid was referring to Pajín's lips or mouth and not cheeks.

    Secondly, I think it's unfair to exclusively accuse the Popular Party of sexism, especially after one of the Socialist party's historical members (Alfonso Guerra) recently referred to Trinidad Jimenez as Señorita Trini and was called machista by members of his own party (PSOE).

    Thirdly, a bit over the top to say Rajoy can't control his party members, don't you think? I mean, is it OK for Pedro Castro, mayor of Getafe and chairman of FEMP to call PP voters "tontos de los cojones".

    But no, maybe you're right, maybe it's only PP and Rajoy who are racist, sexist and have no control on the members of their parties

  2. The translation of "morritos" has sparked plenty of discussion. It is translated as mouth, also "chops". However, there seemed to be an air of double entendre to what he was saying, so "cheeks" seemed appropriate.

    I'm not exclusively accusing the PP of sexism. I'm sure members of the PSOE are also sexist, but the article was looking specifically at the PP and its attempts to avoid being seen as old-fashioned, sexist, racist etc…

    As for the third point, I certainly would say that Rajoy struggles to control his party and has done so since 2004. Zapatero has had plenty of problems, but he hasn't had to face the kind of internal party challenges or lack of discipline that Rajoy has.

  3. I´d agree with Pete on this-even references to Jagger´s lips should make it obvious.

    Guy,you seem to be a fully paid-up El Pais/lefty angle journalist-once again your stories have a "tone",leave that to Tele-Espe:it would be nice if you kept stories neutral

    Hmmm, looks like there's sexism in the PSOE too.

    I mean, come on. Having an orgasm voting for Montilla? Just shows their intellectual level.

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