Spain progressing? Time for a reality check

The right-wing in Spain is getting back into its stride. Will the electorate use the opportunity of the imminent European elections to point out that being lied to by politicians and treated to unacceptable delays by the courts may not represent the type of modern democracy that many want to live in?

Liz Cooper
16 May 2014

“España avanza” (Spain is progressing) wrote the President on Twitter, not long before entering the Spanish Parliament chamber earlier this year to take part in the debate on the “State of the Nation”. In his speech he dealt almost exclusively with the economy, blaming the previous socialist government for its mishandling of the crisis and asserted the success of his government in pulling the economy round. He has some backing for his assertion. President Obama of the United States of America had congratulated the Spanish President, Mariano Rajoy, in January of this year on the recovery of the Spanish economy “under his great leadership”, a leadership that remains silent on all major issues apart from the economy.

It looks rather different from the point of view of the Spanish. On the surface little seems to have changed in the last two years; bustling city centres, bars as busy as ever, the Spanish habit of living life on the street happily continues. Opinions however on the “state of the nation” show a deepening concern for the country, above all for the level of corruption. The Centre for Sociological Investigation (CIS) national monthly polls show that in April this year, 82% considered unemployment to be one of the top three problems of Spain and 41%  put corruption and fraud in the same position, although in 2012 corruption and fraud were seen by less than 12% as a major concern.  The economy is seen by 28% to be in the top three. In January, 82% thought that the political situation in Spain was bad or very bad; over 70% that the Government was doing badly or very badly; 88 % have little or no confidence in the President Mariano Rajoy, and even less it must be said, in the leader of the opposition - Alfredo Rubalcaba (91%). Can this be the electorate’s response to “great leadership”?

Corruption is frequently described as endemic by the media, and as new cases are uncovered almost on a daily basis, awareness of the issue is growing fast. “International Transparency” a group concerned with governments’ corruption corroborates the national findings by showing that awareness of corruption in Spain has jumped 6 points in the first 3 months of this year, from 59 to 65 out of one hundred, where the higher the score the more the perception of corruption. Nevertheless, it was only a matter of weeks ago that the Spanish state prosecutor finally made a public statement to draw attention to corruption at all levels of political life. He publicly bemoaned the contaminating effects of serious corruption at the top on the ordinary citizen, allowing petty everyday corruption to be justified, he said.  As is common knowledge in the country, the daily reality of life based on “caciquismo” (abuse of power at local level) “amiguismo” (favours for friends) and “nepotismo” (nepotism) has been thriving for years at all levels of Spanish society. Why has it taken the chief prosecutor so long to comment on the “contamination effect”?

The star case in recent years has been “el caso Gurtel”, the long running investigation into the alleged high level of corruption within the Partido Popular (PP), an investigation launched by the judge Baltasar Garzón five years ago, which ultimately ended his career on the instructions of the Supreme Court, for having recorded conversations between the accused and their lawyers.  One important protagonist in this case is an ex-treasurer of the PP Luis Bárcenas, also an ex-member of the Senate, the elected upper house in the Spanish parliamentary system, who has been in preventative detention in a Madrid prison since July last year accused of a number of corrupt dealings that could lead to 62 years in prison. He has himself made a series of accusations of corruption against his own party including that the PP made long-term fraudulent payments to its own members both at state and regional level over many years. The case stumbles on through the courts with little possibility of a resolution in sight in the short term.

The courts appear to be unable, some allege unwilling, to deal with the plethora of cases. The press refers regularly to the interminable delays in bringing cases to a conclusion, delays which can last as long as 5 or even 10 years.  Currently the judiciary is dealing with 1700 cases involving potential corruption with 500 awaiting trial. In January 2013 in only 5 autonomous communities, there were more than 200 elected politicians accused of corruption and awaiting court proceedings.

There seems to be no area of public spending that is free from accusations of corruption. Most recent cases include the flagship train the AVE, the high speed national railway which is reported to have had problematic financial transactions possibly leading to 6 million euros of fraudulent invoices during the construction of the Madrid-Barcelona line.  Funds from Europe for training opportunities for those out of work may also have been manipulated; anti-corruption forces are investigating the possible embezzlement of millions of euros designed for re-training schemes in Andalusia. Andalusia is one of the poorest regions and governed by the socialists (PSOE).  Madrid (PP) is also under investigation for the possible embezzlement of similar funds. Whilst the existence of aerodromes without aeroplanes is well documented and accusations of corruption in their construction have been reported by the international press, Carlos Fabra, onetime president of the company that built the plane-less airport in Castellon in the autonomous region of Valencia, has been accused of transferring 600,000 euros from those same airport funds to organize golf tournaments on his private golf-course. The situation approaches the surreal.

Even the monarchy is involved in accusations as Spain waits for the Princess Cristina, the younger daughter of the King, to appear in court to face alleged charges of fraud connected with her husband’s business, who is also awaiting trial.

In the 32 years of democracy since the end of Franco and the 4 year transition period, the right-wing, as represented by various coalitions on the right which finally became the Partido Popular (PP) has been in power for only 10 years. The post transition elections in 1982 were won by the Socialist Party (PSOE) who held on to power for an unbroken 14 years. The PP took over for the first time from the PSOE in 1996; the Socialists were back eight years later in 2004 until the elections of 2011 when the PP was returned with an absolute majority, in the depths of the current crisis.  Allegations of corruption are scattered throughout, over members of both major political parties and over many years.

While the rich continue to get richer and inequality between the rich and the poor increases according to “Oxfam” the reality of daily life gets harder for many young people. The catholic charity “Caritas” reports that Spain is now second in the rankings of increasing child poverty as the poor become poorer. The country is top of the rankings in unemployment figures in Europe according to recently published Eurostat figures with over 55% unemployment amongst those under 25. If the Government has its way Spain will very shortly have the most restrictive laws on abortion in Europe apart from Ireland and Malta. The Government has altered article 23 of the Law on the Judiciary (la Ley Orgánica del Poder Judicial), taking Spain out of its commitment to aspects of the International Court of Justice, established in The Hague in 1945, thereby strengthening the case for impunity claimed by some governments. Recently would-be immigrants from Africa have had to face being shot at in their attempts to enter Spanish held territories in Morocco. Is this the right profile for a modern democratic state and a member of the European Union? 

The right-wing is getting back into its stride and, as happened under Franco, doing little to deter the long-term habit of political corruption, a neglect which may turn out to be a mistake in the face of increased awareness and imminent European elections. Will the electorate use this opportunity to point out that being lied to by the politicians, treated to damaging and unacceptable delays by the courts, dragged back into the past by the Catholic Church, duped by the monarchy and drowning in a sea of corruption, may not represent the type of modern democracy that many want to live in, the alleged economic recovery notwithstanding?


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