Thursday, 19 April 2012

Sport and politics shouldn't mix – but sometimes they must.

The Bahrain Question - why F1 must take a stand

Shanghai International Circuit, fifty miles south of Shanghai. Its collection of soaring towers and vast stadium complex provide an impressive backdrop to the world's premier motorsport competition. For a few hours on Sunday, as Nico Rosberg's silver Mercedes lapped effortlessly to a long-overdue first victory, all appeared serene in the world of Formula One. But throughout the weekend off-track politics have cast a shadow over the sport's competitive side.

The Chinese circuit is among F1's most impressive venues, testament to the incredible wealth poured into the sport by emerging economies in recent years. But despite China's questionable human rights record, it is Bahrain, another economy whose riches have swelled the F1 coffers, which is attracting all the headlines. The Bahrain Grand Prix is due to run this weekend and despite the kingdom being gripped by mass uprising and demonstration against the totalitarian regime, the race is still going ahead.

Bahrain, particularly the capital Manama, has been in lockdown at various points for well over a year. Since the Arab Spring in early 2011 thousands of mostly Shi'ite protesters have taken to the streets, bidding for freedom and an end to the hereditary monarchy of the Sunni elite, the Al-Khalifa royal family.

Whilst last years' event was cancelled on safety grounds, this year organisers are pressing ahead as though all is normal. This is not the case. The regime has kept dissidents from taking control with violence and shocking reprisals. Stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and even live ammunition have been used against protesters. At some points the authorities even resorted to the army's tanks and overseas mercenaries. Political opponents, such as Abdulkarim Ali Ahmed Fakhrawl, a newspaper editor, have been brutally tortured.

Naturally the FIA, F1's governing body, have wheeled out the predictable line that the sport and politics should not mix. But mix the two is exactly what the race's promoters have done. The promotional tagline “uniF1ed – a nation in celebration” paints a criminally distorted picture of the real situation, effectively using Formula 1 as a propaganda tool to wash over the discord.

In reality, the exact opposite is true.

Far from a unifying force, F1 has become a symbol of the oppression of the ruling class in Bahrain. Its benefits – colossal advertising revenues and contributions to the local economy – are mostly confined to the elite section of society which subjugates the rest. In effect, Formula One's presence is allowing the existing regime to solidify its position with the enormous financial windfall it provides.

It is hardly surprising that F1 – and its self-styled 'ringmaster', Bernie Ecclestone – have polarised the protesters' anger in recent weeks. Protesters have burned pictures of Ecclestone and banners and graffiti have all appeared carrying messages with a similar rallying call: “No Formula One over our blood”.

Disappointingly it seems that money speaks louder than morals. For Ecclestone and Formula One's parent company CVC Bahrain is an enormous cash-cow, bringing in £40 million in promotor's fees alone.

Formula One has the opportunity to strike a blow for the freedom of a repressed people. Calling off the race would make the position of a cruel regime even more untenable. Bahrain is a small nation of 1.6 million people and Formula One contributes significantly to its economy every year. Comparisons with other sporting events in other controversial regimes, such as the former Soviet Union, or present day China, are null and void. Jimmy Carter's decision to prevent U.S athletes from competing in the 1980 Olympics in the then-U.S.S.R. made negligible impact on the overall Soviet regime because in the event the politics played little part in the running of the event. Protests surrounding Beijing 2008 again had little effect.

The Bahraini government is using F1 as a PR mechanism, attempting to divert international eyes away from its contemptible treatment of its people. Meanwhile the FIA and F1 itself is playing a dangerous game of brinksmanship in the name of profit, tacitly supporting a brutal regime by holding the race. But, with the violence set to continue, will this short term profit cause long term damage to the sport?  

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Now Sarkozy ruffles feathers in Madrid as the election battle hots up

Just like Manchester City after Mikel Arteta’s booming 87th minute strike yesterday, Nicolas Sarkozy is staring down the barrel of defeat. If the latest polls are to be believed, socialist rival Francois Hollande is pulling clear. Now Carla Bruni’s diminutive husband is trying to fight back. His latest tactic? Breaking his long-held solidarity with fellow EU nations by criticising Greece and, more contentiously, Spain.

A lot to ponder
Sarkozy sounded a cautionary note to voters against the socialists' economic model, heaping blame on “seven years of socialist government” for Spain’s current problems. It was a direct stab at the tenure of prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero between 2004 and 2011, which met with a cold reception in Madrid even among the conservatives.

The socialist PSOE, formerly headed by Zapatero, immediately pointed to Sarkozy’s own credentials, highlighting France’s high public debt. The new conservative Finance Minister, Luis de Guindos, dismissed Sarkozy’s remarks as mere campaigning and branding the comparisons with Greece “unjust”.

Sarkozy may have a point. Spain’s economy is hardly in rude health – its national debt still sits above €15000 per capita. But singling out a fellow EU member as an object lesson in economic mismanagement is surely a step too far, particularly in the current climate. Never in its 54-year history has the EU needed to be more unified. With eurozone break-up still possible and the IMF reluctant to step in with bailout money, political infighting is the last thing Europe’s leaders should be doing.

With the elections now imminent and the final push for votes underway, it seems Sarkozy is feeling the pressure from Hollande. His PR team has been in overdrive during the last few weeks and Sarkozy has hit out at his socialist rival at every opportunity.

His most recent piece of rhetoric was a 34-page document simply titled “letter to the French People”, which tried to show solidarity with his people whilst asserting his presidential gravitas. It even began with a hand-written note extolling his brand of (nauseating) patriotism: “my dear compatriots, there is nothing more beautiful than love for one’s country.”

But his patriotism was more decorative garnish, masking the document’s true agenda with a layer of populist jingoism. The majority of the letter was devoted to criticising Hollande’s policies rather than offering anything new or constructive. But the reductive politics of sniping at rivals is classic Sarkozy.

His tactic of outlining his politics via letter is also nothing new. In his bid for re-election in 1987 the socialist President Francois Mitterrand drafted a similar document addressed to the French people with exactly the same name. His goal was to build an image of him as experienced and trustworthy, almost avuncular, positioning himself above the cheap political point-scoring of his rival Jacques Chirac.

But the glaring irony of Sarkozy’s tactics will not be lost on the socialists. The fact that he, the enemy of everything Mitterrand stood for, is now changing tack and trying to imitate the former president, will probably leave the socialist ranks tittering with laughter.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Spain's Catch-22 - Strikes and the 'Summer of Discontent'

Friday in Madrid, the morning after the strike. The paving slabs of the central plaza are covered in the papery mulch of discarded leaflets from last night's protest. Bins are still unemptied,  overflowing with red plastic flags bearing union logos. Buildings are pock-marked with anti-authoritarian slogans in black spray paint.

This was the sixth general strike in Spain's history and the first since 2002. Unions claim 900,000 took to the streets. Police put the numbers below 100,000. The real figure, - somewhere between six and seven hundred-thousand, is still enormous.

Spain is losing patience with her government. Although the rally passed without violence, the vehemence of the protesters and sheer weight of numbers present will worry Spanish authorities. Placards bearing “No hope, no jobs, no money” neatly encapsulate the country's problems. Banners with the message “total violence: let’s steal food and rob houses” carried impact but were meant more in jest than as a call to arms for widespread anarchy.

But this second mantra could become more real as the problems worsen. The simmering anger of the Madrid residents could be a portent of more animated protests as government cutbacks and reforms begin to bite harder.

Tellingly it was the younger generations who made their voices heard. Spain has approaching 50% youth unemployment and faces the prospect of a lost generation who will pass into middle age with little work experience. Young people, some only sixteen, led the anti-authoritarian charge, with chants and banners carrying unprintable messages directed at police, banks, and the newly-elected Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy.

Rajoy's conservative Partido Populista is feverishly cutting back to reduce the national debt, - currently almost 9%. In 2011 the country fell 2.5% short of its reduction target and now the 5.3% proposed by the EU seems wildly optimistic. The PP has stepped up its efforts, with a so-called 'rationalisation' of the banking sector and new labour reforms.

The latest reforms are the main source of anger for Spanish workers and the reason for strike. The crux of the proposals is the reduced compensation package available to workers after being fired – which makes it easier for companies to lay them off and so reduce overheads. In effect, jobs in an already shaky market are now even more transient.

The proposal also increases the levy on jobs for large and medium-sized companies, to help increase government revenue.

Rajoy and his cabinet have set out their austerity plan using the UK's as a model – though taking it further with more severe public investment cutbacks. But while Cameron's austerity measures (and the Bank of England's periodic injections of capital via Quantative Easing) are slowly and painfully clawing the UK out of debt, Spain is a different case entirely.

Whereas the UK’s national debt sits near 3% with the economy slightly growing (0.8% in 2011), Spain is still mired in deep recession. For a population already at breaking point with tax hikes and cutbacks, the idea of further squeezing seems impossible. Rajoy’s government seems fixated on meeting the EU’s unrealistic targets at all costs – even that of his people’s welfare. On Thursday the rhetoric of the unions was damning – branding the EU and Angela Merkel “tyrannical” for insisting that Spain meet its outlandish targets, whilst castigating Rajoy as “spineless” for submitting to their demands.

In reality he has little choice. The government has a near-irreconcilable balancing act between the demands of the EU and its own people. PSOE, the socialist party in favour of the strikes, suggests suspending the cutbacks for a few years to stimulate job creation. But this would only prolong the pain, leaving Spain swamped in debt for years to come and extending the repercussions for the eurozone, whose bailout strategy depends on Spain returning to the black.

For Spain there is no magic formula. It is likely to be several years before its debts are paid and the road to recovery is littered with obstacles. The remedy – higher taxes, more cuts and perhaps even more drastic reforms – will likely make Mariano Rajoy's PP politically toxic and usher in the return of the socialists. The regions of Asturias and Murcia have already rejected the PP in local elections.

Short term public outcry could make the next few months Spain's 'summer of discontent'. The air of unease on Thursday was almost palpable. Mounted police paced towards the crowds of striking workers. Beret-clad police officers stood uneasily in front armoured riot vans next to the city hall.

In the event there was no need for heavy-handed tactics to keep civil order. But the situation could become more heated if the government turns the screw further. Rajoy's next move will be decisive in keeping his people in check.