Spain: redefining democracy?

The Spanish prefer to describe themselves as picaresque or roguish, but the arrogance of the rich and endemic corruption in post-Franco Spain is changing attitudes.  Liz Cooper says that volcanic change is on the way 

Liz Cooper
6 May 2013

The King of Spain, who happens to hold a position as an honorary President of the World Wildlife Fund, goes off to Africa on an elephant hunt, is caught out by the world’s press, promises not to do it again and apologizes on returning home. In the year 2012.  The following year his younger daughter, Princess Cristina is to be charged with fraud along with her husband Iñaki Urdangarin, both required to answer questions on the corrupt use of their company funds. While the opposition puts on the pressure to change the Constitution so that the Royal Family has to declare its economic interests, a right wing Government in power with an absolute majority suggests that may take some time. The King has meanwhile voluntarily agreed to make the Palace accounts public, at the same time sending his daughter and son-in-law off to Qatar. When the case first came to light, they were sent to Washington. We are told that Iñaki will go off to Qatar in the near future and the Princess is to follow after the end of the school year, presumably in the interests of their children’s education. Very neat.

The arrogance of the rich is astonishing. Is their level of arrogance so high that it never occurs to them that they could be found out?  Or do they assume no one would dare to accuse them of criminal behaviour, whatever the evidence?

After Franco’s 40 years of vicious rule that divided Spain into winners and losers, the Spanish voted for Franco’s choice to head a Constitutional Monarchy:  the grandson of the king ousted by the short lived Second Republic in the early part of the last century. The new King’s role in the transition and his control of the attempted military coup in 1981 were the two acts that gave his reign legitimacy in the eyes of the public.  Recent national surveys however show a steady decline in the preference for a monarchy over a republic. In 1996, 66% preferred a monarchy, in 2011 that figure had dropped to 53%;  in the 18 to 35 age group no preference is shown: 45% opting for a monarchy and 45% for a republic. Last month the Centre for Sociological Investigations (CIS) published a report on the public’s evaluation of the King, the first since 2011: he scored 3.68, a drop of 1.3 points and lost three places in the list of institutions most valued by the citizenry.  Regard for the monarchy is clearly dwindling as the institution loses its mystique and begins to look like any other part of the current establishment.

But arrogance is not just the prerogative of the royal family. The case currently running as a daily backdrop to all political life in Spain is concerned with investigating evidence that suggests that the ruling party the Partido Popular (PP) has for years been financed from secret sources and that illegal payments have been regularly made to PP members as a matter of course, many of whom are reputedly named in the famous Bárcenasgate case. Three ex treasurers of the party are currently under investigation.  Resignations are unlikely: they are less common than the defrocking of priests. The first case where a priest was expelled as a convicted pederast by the Catholic Church in Spain has just recently been reported. The first Government resignation in the face of fraud and corruption is still awaited. The case in Britain where a Member of Parliament resigned after pleading guilty to a speeding offence was received in Spain with utter disbelief.

It is common to describe corruption in Spain as endemic. The Spanish prefer to describe themselves as picaresque, or roguish.  “Lazarillo de Tormes” and “Guzman de Alfarache” are two major works of the 16th and 17th centuries which represent the picaresque in Spanish literature and life.  “Lazarillo” has been a set book at school and is a national favourite. It was published in 1554 by an anonymous author and is the story of a hero of lower class origin and no fixed job who lived by his wits.  These picaresque novels are at times referred to in order to help explain the level of corruption in daily life today.

It looks as if in the 21st century a volcanic change is on the way.  The latest opinion polls show that corruption now preoccupies over 44% of the population whereas only 3 months ago, 17% were said to be concerned.  A survey in February by the “Real Instituto Elcano”, asking about corruption for the first time found that 52% put the issue at the top of their list of concerns.  This is a huge shift. Commentators are talking of the need for a profound change in the society, towards a more civic culture and participative democracy.  The Indignados, the 15 M movement and the Anti-eviction campaign group PAH  are all pointing  in that direction. Attitudes are changing.

Until very recently the relatively frequent case of a company going bankrupt and leaving its shareholders without their savings did not actually reach the hearts and minds of the Spanish. When the banks hit the headlines with frequent and violent evictions of people unable to pay the mortgages they had been encouraged to sign up to, without understanding the abusive repayment terms, protests in solidarity with the victims began to demand attention. The small but horrifying number of suicides in the face of eviction affected many people and generated support for the protests.

The anti-eviction group PAH has been fighting for years against the abusive nature of the laws on eviction where not only are late-payers evicted and the property reclaimed but the ex-tenants continue to owe money to the bank in many cases. Today the PAH is one of the most important protest groups in the country with over  85% of the electorate supporting their claim to housing as a right of the people. They have achieved a very high profile which is beginning to move even parts of the establishment. The Autonomous Government of Andalusia is to introduce a new law to expropriate housing about  to be the subject of evictions by the banks, where the eviction would put the occupants on the street, a plan also supported by more than 85% of the population. The opposition has given the idea total support, but the Government is attempting to squash all such initiatives, suggesting that the move is unconstitutional. A judge has said publicly that the move is legal and fits perfectly into the statute of the Spanish Constitution.  The Government finally passed a new and ineffective law on evictions without the support of the rest of Parliament.

There have been attempts by the Government to criminalize and smear the PAH campaign by comparing them with the Basque terrorist organisation ETA and suggesting that their tactics are reminiscent of Nazi Germany. President Mariano Rajoy has described the movement as “profoundly undemocratic”. Perhaps he should be required to explain his definition of democracy to the people of Spain.



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