Political corruption in Spain: will this be Rajoy’s Watergate?

As each day progressively reveals the extent of corruption inside the ruling People's Party, the Spanish people are disheartened by the conduct of their politicians, including that of Prime Minister Rajoy. But there are things that they can do.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Demotix/Lino De Vallier. All rights reserved.Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Demotix/Lino De Vallier. All rights reserved.

The big question all Spaniards want to know the answer to is whether PM Mariano Rajoy received side payments over his years as a top official of the People's Party (PP), if so, whether he declared them to the fiscal authorities. If he is not able to give a clear and convincing answer, it will become really hard for him to maintain his credibility while trying to impose the toughest economic measures on his countrymen and women since the return of democracy.

The “atomic bomb” that former PP treasurer, Luis Barcenas, threatened to drop, has actually exploded already. The publication by El País of Barcenas’ parallel PP accounting between 1990 and 2008 reveals payments to many party officials – including Rajoy, and now PP Secretary General Maria Dolores de Cospedal -  in addition to their regular salaries. The papers also reveal “donations” from different well-known businessmen. In a communiqué, the group denied all accusations.

Only a few weeks ago we learnt that Barcenas - who was already indicted in the Gurtel affair, a huge case related to briberies to PP officials in return for public contracts, and left the party more than two years ago - had kept up to €22 million from dubious sources in bank accounts in Switzerland. Then we learnt about the “envelopes” (the way the extra payments were handled), and the ramifications of his network, and as the general level of enraged disbelief rose, Barcenas himself confirmed that he had benefited from the tax amnesty offered by the Government until the end of 2012; another slap in the face for a stunned population. Where the money came from, who received it, what was it in exchange for, were those “envelopes” registered and declared, are just some of the questions to be asked by a judge and answered by an investigation. Behind all this lies a very sensitive issue: the illegal financing of political parties.

A widespread epidemic               

The depth of this case, and its as yet unknown consequences, cannot hide however the myriad of other corruption scandals scattered all around the country. This cancer has reached all levels of institutions and society, from the King’s son-in-law to major political parties, from small and large municipalities to NGOs and foundations, from the Chinese mafia to the Russian mafia, from life-long career politicians to flamenco celebrities. Name a place and it will be difficult not to find a corruption case nearby. As in a popular Mafalda cartoon, today most Spaniards would want to stop if not the world, at least their country, and get off.

It is therefore hardly surprising that with almost six million people without a job (over 25% of the population), the two main concerns of Spanish public opinion are unemployment and the general economic situation; and right after that, the political class, corruption and fraud, according to the December survey by the Centro de Investigaciones Sociologicas (CIS). Worse than that: 96% of respondents to another poll by Metroscopia believe that politicians are corrupt and 95% that political parties cover over corruption cases instead of helping to bring them to light.

Several reasons may help to explain how we have reached this situation.

The economic bubble of the early 2000s and its blind profligacy are largely to be blamed, of course. This is neither the first time, nor the first place, where easy money perturbs the moral and ethical compass. But some roots of the problem go further back in time. After Franco’s death, the drafters of the Spanish Constitution chose a proportional electoral system, with strong parties, strong leaders, and closed lists in order to favour stability. At the same time, they designed a heavily decentralized state structure, in order to attend to the regions' historical demands. Both facts, among others, assured a peaceful transition to democracy and a very stable political environment for more than 30 years. But, involuntarily, they also helped to develop a hydra with several heads: those of the political parties, which became machines to achieve and perpetuate power with very little accountability and transparency; and those of the different layers of the Administration, local, regional, national, whose competences tend to duplicate each other and have become the place where politicians of all stripes can engage in nepotism.

Some will appeal to the idiosyncratic element, too. We seem to have recovered “picaresca” as a key feature of our national personality. "Picaresca" was the term used to describe the one thousand ways to escape poverty and misery in the declining society of seventeenth century Spain. The truth is that Spain still has a long way to go to achieve the civic maturity of other democratic societies.

Tough medicine

What the country badly needs now is a complete political, social and moral overhaul. Easy to say or write, much more difficult to execute, especially given the fact that those who can push change are those who would lose the most were it to happen.

Some of the obvious solutions are already on the table… waiting for discussion or approval. Last summer the Government presented a project for a Transparency Law, now being discussed by the Parliament. Several specialist organizations in the field have criticized the draft, among other reasons, because it does not include political parties, trade unions or the King’s House. It may be a start, though. There is also a project to reform the law of Public Administrations, which is being studied by a special committee chaired by Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, deputy PM. This process will certainly take time.

A few days ago Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, leader of the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE), asked for a national pact against corruption. Nice try - but in the five years since the economic crisis started, the main political forces have never been able to agree on common action against recession or unemployment. Beyond good words and gestures, it is hard to believe that they really mean it this time.

Struggling to survive in this moral desert, the people’s reactions mix rage, indignation, despair, and also humour. But there are several things that we, as citizens, can do. To start with, be much more demanding with our politicians. When the first major scandals in several PP-governed regions were revealed a few years ago many commentators wondered why corruption did not really affect the conservatives at the polls. The PP remained in power in Valencia, for example, despite several of their top officials being involved in corruption cases. Spaniards should also learn to officially complain. There is a lack of tradition and few channels to place accusations and complaints beyond friends and coffee-table talk; but citizens, or party members, should be able to denounce misconduct and mismanagement as part of their individual responsibility.

It is certain, though, that a national pact is needed; that a national, inclusive and frank debate should be open to review our democratic principles and institutions. Constitutional reform cannot be a taboo. The text that has served its purpose for more than three decades – and was based on a wide consensus - has to be adjusted to the new realities, under a new consensus. It is urgent to tackle the way political parties are financed, too, because it is the source of many of the current woes. Many think that there are other priorities now: dragging the country out of the crisis and economic recovery. Today, however, the priorities have shifted: the PM has to demonstrate he is a trustworthy leader. If he cannot, the Barcenas papers could turn out to be Rajoy’s own Watergate. 

About the author

Cristina Manzano is Editor-in-chief of esglobal. She has been Deputy director of FRIDE, a Madrid based think tank and is a regular contributor to different Spanish and international media. She regularly blogs for the Spanish Huffington Post.