Spain: New leftist mayors turn back on bullfighting

IAIN SULLIVAN, Associated Press

CIARAN GILES, Associated Press

VILLAFRANCA DE LOS CABALLEROS, Spain (AP) — Bullfights or schoolbooks? A new breed of local officials in Spain are asking.

Julian Bolanos, the mayor of this central Spanish town of around 5,000 inhabitants, recently announced he was taking the 18,000 euros ($20,000) in public funding for bullfights to invest it in textbooks and other educational material.

Days before, his new leftist counterpart in the northwestern city of A Coruna withdrew 50,000 euros in bullfight subsidies and vowed to find a better way to spend it.

The measures may be surprising in a country where bullfights are an emblematic part of the culture and a traditional fixture in nearly every town’s summer festival. But they are not unusual: Since May 24 local elections, the ruling, pro-bullfighting, conservative Popular Party has been ousted from town halls and regional governments across the country and replaced by leftist coalitions that are questioning funding for bullfights — seen as a luxury in times of economic hardship.

“Of every 10 people that come to me, nine ask for work or help, not one has come to me asking for bullfights,” Bolanos, a Socialist party member, told The Associated Press. His town, like most of Spain, suffered severely in the economic crisis that has left the country with 22 percent unemployment.

In Madrid, the world’s bullfighting capital, new leftist Mayor Manuela Carmena has said she won’t be using the presidential box at the bullring — a mayoral privilege — and is studying withdrawing subsidies and declaring the capital an animal-friendly city, a mostly symbolic gesture toward animal rights groups.

That move has already been taken by Palma de Mallorca in the Balearic Islands, also administered by a new left-wing mayor.

The major city of Valencia, in the east, also has a new leftist town hall team that has axed bullfight subsidies, while nearly a dozen towns in the region, including the port city of Alicante, are pushing for referendums on keeping bull events as part of town festivals.

“We’re under attack,” said Carlos Nunez, president of the Spain’s Fighting Bull Breeders Union. “The May 24 elections have brought about many changes with coalitions including anti-bullfighting parties.”

He said it was unjust treatment for a spectacle that has been declared part of Spain’s national heritage, and is the country’s most popular spectacle after soccer. Bullfighting and bull-running have always stirred strong passions; some see the spectacles as artistic while others view them as anachronistic, bloody and cruel.

Going against the trend is the northern Basque city of San Sebastian, which under a new conservative mayor has reintroduced bullfighting, ending a two-year ban by the former leftist town hall. The first bullfight was held Thursday, attended by former King Juan Carlos and other members of his family. The monarch called for bullfighting to be defended, saying it “is an asset for Spain that we must support.”

The king received a rousing ovation by those attending and a special dedication by one of the bullfighters, who said the king was defending culture and freedom by his presence. Outside, pockets of anti-bullfight protesters joined forces with anti-monarchists.

The debate of tradition versus animal rights has little to do with this particular debate, however. Spain’s economic crisis plunged bullfighting into crisis, with smaller crowds at ever fewer bullfights. Younger people preferred to spend what little money they had on travel, theater shows, movies, pop concerts and night clubs. Despite dwindling popularity, Spain still holds some 2,000 bullfights annually and some 16,000 town festivals include bull events.

One milestone in the debate came in 2011, when Catalonia, the rich northeastern regions whose capital is Barcelona, became Spain’s second region to ban bullfighting. It joined the Canary Islands, which stopped the practice in 1991.

In response, a string of other regions mostly run by the Popular Party passed directives protecting the spectacle. Parliament also took moves to enshrining bullfighting as a key part of the nation’s cultural heritage following a petition bearing 600,000 signatures, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.