Mayors in Britain are usually named Doris and Derek; you see them with a chain around their neck opening the new library or fete. They have no power unless their name is Boris and they rule London. The power at the local town hall lies with the leader of the council.
In Spain things are very different. The mayor is all powerful and with a lot of patronage to spread round is usually loyally supported by his party and coalition members.
Now if you are a student of political intrigue, especially at the local level, I urge you to closely follow events in San Roque where a master class in the subject is taking place.
First the tragedy:
The mayor of San Roque, José Vázquez, died in the early hours of last Sunday morning at the University Hospital in Málaga. He suffered a heart attack whilst on the operating table undergoing treatment in his long-running battle against lung cancer.
José Vázquez Castillo was born in 1939 in Tetuán but spent most of his life in San Roque where he was involved with the family business. At the end of the 1960s he joined the progressive socialist party of Enrique Tierno Galván. Such parties were illegal under Franco and had to operate on a clandestine basis until the dictator’s death. Tierno Galván’s party then merged with PSOE and it was as a socialist that Vázquez was first elected as a councillor in 1979. He became mayor for a brief period in 1999 and has ruled San Roque in coalition with Ledesma’s USR since 2003.
Now for the intrigue:
After Vázquez’s death was announced cartoonist Ricardo Tejeiro issued an incisive drawing of one of the lion’s that guards the entrance to San Roque. The lion asked whether the noise he could hear was the church bells tolling or the sound of succession knives being sharpened at the town hall?
Photographs of the funeral show the great and good of the socialist party paying homage to the deceased mayor. Yet you knew that in their grief they were plotting and foremost in their minds is who would succeed him?
The socialist party in San Roque was in turmoil before Vázquez’s death. He became mayor in 2003 (and again in 2007) on the back of a coalition agreement with the local USR led by José Antonio Ledesma. The deal was simple – Vázquez would be mayor for two years and then Ledesma for the final two. After two years Vázquez decided he liked the job as mayor, so he refused to stand down, leaving Ledesma little option than to like rather than lump it.
The deal was renewed in 2007 but the then ill Vázquez decided to allow Ledesma to stand in for him during his frequent absences. This caused tension in PSOE as many in the party felt that socialist Juan Carlos Ruiz Boix, also a deputy mayor, should have been given that role.
Then last year Vázquez acted by stripping Ruiz Boix of all his portfolios. This essentially split the local party in two with Vazquez backed by Regina Cuenca on one side and Ruiz Boix leading the rest. A poignant photograph shows Ruiz Boix looking on at the funeral of his former political master – one can only wonder what thoughts are passing through his head.
Next Thursday San Roque will appoint a new mayor. The councillors of PSOE will have to choose between Regina Cuenca and Juan Carlos Ruiz Boix as their candidate. Whoever is chosen will leave open wounds in the other half of the party. Watching on will be José Antonio Ledesma wondering what the future holds for him and his USR. The opposition Partido Popular are likely to put forward their spokesperson and former mayor Fernando Palma. Palma ousted Vázquez in 1999 in a vote of no confidence and will be looking to exploit any divisions in the ruling coalition.
As they say – we live in interesting times.