Melchoir waves to the crowd

It is hard to escape politics in Spain these days, but the controversy sparked by Madrid’s much-loved Cabalgata de los Reyes parade came as a surprise all the same.

Every year, on the night before the January 6 feast of Epiphany, the three kings make a triumphant entry into the Spanish capital, at the end of a vast procession that snakes its way down the Castellana boulevard. By tradition, the Cabalgata parade offers up a peculiar blend of the religious (the kings), the commercial (company-sponsored floats with popular cartoon figures), the military (the Spanish cavalry), the agricultural (geese) and the circus (elephants and camels).

Tens of thousands line the route, hoping to catch a glimpse of the kings – and to pick up their share of the thousands of kilos of sweets that are thrown into the crowd. For children, it is the highlight of Spain’s festive calendar, made more exciting still by the knowledge that there is only one more night to go until they can unwrap their Christmas presents.

This year’s Cabalgata, however, was subtly different. Madrid elected a new mayor last year, ending more than two decades of rule by the conservative Popular party. The new chief is Manuela Carmena, a veteran left-wing judge and activist, who led an alliance of leftist groups to victory in May. Though not a member of Podemos, she is a close ally of Spain’s anti-austerity movement. Read more

Albert Rivera, Ciudadanos party leader

The political headlines in Europe this year have all been about the rise of the political extremes. The National Front surged in France, the Law and Justice Party took power in Poland, the Alternative for Deutschland saw a revival in Germany – and Britain’s Labour Party chose a new leader from its far-left fringes.

The elections in Spain on December 20th, however, offer an interesting contrast to this trend. One of the big stories of the campaign has been the rise of a centrist, liberal party called Ciudadanos. If the polls are to be believed, the ruling centre-right People’s Party (PP) is likely to emerge as the largest single group after Sunday’s vote. But the new party (“Citizens” in English) will be in a close battle for second place with the Socialists and Podemos, a radical left party. Even if Ciudadanos comes in fourth, the party’s position in the political centre-ground could mean that it holds the balance of power. Read more

How is Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s centre-right prime minister, planning to win re-election when voters elect a new legislature on December 20? Read more

By Gideon Rachman
In the 1930s, the Spanish civil war sucked in outsiders, with Nazi Germany backing the nationalists, the Soviet Union backing the Republicans and foreign idealists flocking to the country to fight on either side of the conflict.

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It seems as if good news is gushing out of Spain these days like water from a Seville fountain.

The economy is expanding at its fastest rate in seven years, leaving behind France, Germany and Italy. The government predicts Spain’s return to growth will create half a million jobs this year. A commercial airline (Ryanair) is going to fly in and out of Castellón airport, the unused, €150m facility near Valencia that was a symbol of wasteful expenditure in Spain’s pre-crisis years.

To cap everything, researchers say they have found, under a Madrid convent, some of the remains of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote and Spain’s most revered literary figure.

If only Greece could boast similar successes – a healing economy, a society recovering from the euro crisis, and the discovery of Homer’s skull under the patio of an Athens taverna.

Without wanting to turn a sprinkler on Spain’s parade, I think a few words of caution are in order. Read more

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What does Podemos want?
It is, without doubt, the question that has occupied political analysts and commentators in Spain more than any other in recent weeks.
The country’s new anti-establishment party has gone from an idea to a mass movement in just ten months.

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Another week, another sign of political upheaval in Spain.

Monday brought a fresh poll showing that Podemos, the upstart anti-establishment party, is now the most popular political movement in the country. The survey, published in the El Mundo daily, gave Podemos 28.3 per cent of the vote, two points ahead of the ruling Popular party and more than eight points ahead of the opposition Socialists. Not bad for a party founded just 10 months ago by a group of political scientists

It was not the first time that the new party has come first in an opinion poll. But the latest survey made clear that the Podemos surge is no statistical aberration. Fuelled by wide-spread disdain for Spain’s political class and a festering social crisis, the new party appears to be on course to shatter Spain’s established two-party system – and render any prediction as to who might govern the country after next year’s general election obsolete. Read more

People wait in line at a government employment office in Madrid – Getty

A strong, broadly based economic recovery in the eurozone is nowhere in sight – as will become clear on Friday, when Eurostat, the EU agency, and several national statistical offices publish estimates for gross domestic product growth in the third quarter of this year. Read more

  • Relations between Beijing and Tokyo are at a 40-year low amid territorial disputes and rising nationalist rhetoric, but with the leaders set to meet, can they do anything to ease tensions?
  • Catalans will turn out on Sunday to cast votes on the region’s independence despite Spanish courts suspending the ballot, said a leading grassroots activist who called for unity in the separatist movement
  • After mass protests in Taiwan earlier this year against perceived moves towards closer ties with China, Beijing’s plan to lure back Tapei into its embrace risks backfiring
  • Myanmar has given its Rohingya minority a dispiriting choice: prove your family has lived here for more than 60 years and qualify for second-class citizenship, or be placed in camps and face deportation, reports NYT
  • A chilling video dispatch by Vice on the creeping presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) in Lebanon

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It was an interesting week to visit Spain. On Tuesday, I interviewed Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, on stage at an FT conference in Madrid. We spoke, just as dramatic news was emerging from Catalonia that the regional government there was calling off its independence referendum.

Rajoy was understandably pleased. He pronounced that this was “excellent news”. But just as the Spanish prime minister was leaving the stage, so Artur Mas – the head of the devolved Catalan government – was beginning a press conference in Barcelona. His contribution muddied the waters. Read more

  • Against the odds, Nigeria’s overstretched health service and chaotic public authorities have so far contained the Ebola virus through co-ordination and lots of water
  • A simple chart that looks like a fish is giving Spain’s ruling Popular Party hope that next year’s elections – as well as the turmoil over Catalonia’s future – will go its way
  • A former rebel who recently came out of hiding is threatening to shake up Mozambique’s election on a platform of more equitable development for the gas-rich but desperately poor nation
  • A coterie of celebrated chefs wants to bring back the ortolan, a coveted and sumptuous bird eaten in a mouthful that was banned from France’s restaurant menus in 1999
  • Fear not, Our Dear Leader lives: after making no public appearances for more than a month, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is back, but with a walking stick (and possibly a case of gout)

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Fernando Torres

Spain’s forward Fernando Torres after Spain lost their Group B World Cup football match against Chile Credit: Getty

By now, the FT’s award for worst team of the World Cup is possibly as prestigious as the golden trophy pocketed by the winner. The US won our inaugural prize in 1998, Saudi Arabia in 2002, Serbia in 2006 and France in 2010. All were terrible teams, but none sealed the award just six days into the tournament. That distinction belongs to the FT’s worst team of 2014: Spain.

The Spaniards landed here not merely as world champions but – after two straight European titles – as the most successful national team ever. However, they started with a classic mistake: picking players because they had been world champions before. By that logic England should have sent their 1966 team, while Diego Maradona would be here as Argentina’s playmaker, not as a TV pundit who can’t always even get into the stadium. Read more

The focus in last week’s European elections was on the seismic waves of the distinct currents of Euro-populism and reaction that “earthquaked” to the top of the polls in France, Britain (or at least England), Denmark and Greece. But arguably the most intriguing insurgency was Podemos (We Can) in Spain, a phenomenon worth examining outside the swish and swirl of populism.

Much of what I have seen written about Podemos has them “coming out of nowhere” – a cliché employed by politicians and analysts that means “we didn’t see them coming”. Yet a three-month-old party with a budget of barely €100,000 shot into fourth place with one and a quarter million votes and five seats in the European Parliament – similar to Syriza, the Greek left-wing party they plan to hitch up with.

The eruption of Podemos and its compellingly outspoken leader, Pablo Iglesias, has already triggered the fall of Alfredo Perez Rubalcalba, the Socialist secretary general who has presided over the party’s worst electoral performance since democracy was restored in 1977-78. But while obviously a rising current of a new left, Podemos could be a broader catalyst for political change in Spain and beyond. Read more

Now that most of the results have come in from the European parliament elections, let’s take a family photograph of Europe’s presidents, chancellors and prime ministers. Who have the broadest smiles on their faces, and who are sobbing into their handkerchiefs?

Among the European Union’s six biggest states – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK – the happiest leader must surely be Matteo Renzi, Italy’s premier. He won, and won big. Mr Renzi (above) demolished the notion that Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five-Star Movement is on an unstoppable roll. He also inflicted an emphatic defeat on Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party.

Even though it was not a national election, the youthful Mr Renzi can now claim to have a mandate of sorts for the political, economic and social reforms that he knows are necessary to modernise Italy. This is not to say that he will succeed – the power of entrenched anti-reform interests in Italy is formidable. But maybe he has a better chance than he did 48 hours ago. Read more

Miguel Arias Cañete and Elena Valenciano shake hands (Getty)

On Thursday night, Spanish television broadcast the first and only live debate between Spain’s leading candidates for the European Parliament election. The debate itself provided few rhetorical fireworks and precious little insight, but the morning after was packed with zesty controversy.

Most commentators felt that Miguel Arias Cañete, who heads the list of Spain’s ruling Popular party, came off slightly worse in the head-to-head clash with Elena Valenciano, his Socialist opponent. Unusually for a TV debate between politicians, Mr Arias Cañete decided to read his entire opening and closing statements off a piece of paper. Shuffling his notes around for much of the night, he reverted back to pre-written text on several more occasions. It made for a slightly wooden, disjointed appearance that triggered a flood of mocking tweets and commentary.

Perhaps realising that his performance had made less of an impact than he would have hoped, Mr Arias Cañete gave a television interview on Friday morning that offered up a curious explanation for his lacklustre performance. The problem, apparently, was the fact that he was facing a womanRead more

French President François Hollande has made an uncharacteristically audacious decision in appointing Manuel Valls, an economic reformer and Socialist party moderniser, as his new prime minister. Here are five things you need to know about the new premier: Read more

An elderly woman walks through a wintry Spanish city, sadly bemoaning her country’s fate. “All the studies show we always come last in the rankings,” she exclaims, shuffling past a placard highlighting Spain’s poor performance in international education tests.

She bumps into old friends, all of whom tell her of their plans to leave the country and “become foreigners”. At a nearby market, stalls advertise the benefits of becoming German, Scandinavian or British. She meets a tousle-haired man clutching his German certificate: “I want to know what it feels like when everyone owes you money – not the other way around.” Read more