Spain: ruled by habit?

Anger amongst the Spanish electorate is rising fast amidst the dramatic events in a long-running corruption case implicating the Spanish Government. Liz Cooper says that above all the Spanish want stability, but where stability lies is now uncertain...

Liz Cooper
22 July 2013

In 2001 a new television series “Cuéntame como pasó” ("Tell me what happened") quickly established itself in Spain as a huge popular success, applauded as a faithful attempt at describing the past. The script was the story of a family during the last years of Franco and through the transition to democracy, moving from village to city, from poverty to relative comfort, from working class to middle class, from dictatorship to democracy.  Twelve years later it is still running; new episodes are produced each year and earlier episodes repeated regularly on late night television. In an episode set in 1973 and repeated last week, a plan to run a motorway through their “barrio” in Madrid had the neighbours up in arms. The group president went to the Town Hall to try to talk to the relevant official and promptly discovered that first she would need to pay him a bribe, treated in the script as an essential preliminary transaction in dealing with officials.  40 years later as this Government fends off accusations of secret donations to their party and illegal payments to members, it would appear that corrupt practice still remains the norm.

Even longer-running than the TV series is “el caso Gürtel” ("the Gürtel case") -  one of many cases involving alleged corruption of politicians in Spain over the last 15 years, ramifications of which are once again in the headlines implicating members of the Government.  The Gürtel network was a ring of businessmen who bribed “Partido Popular” (PP) officials and members in return for public contracts worth millions of euros, and whose alleged ringleader Francisco Correa spent 3 years in prison before he could post bail when it was reduced to 600,000 euros.  It is said the ring was particularly active during the Aznar presidency from1996 to 2004 but there are still serious issues to be resolved related to the case. Luis Bárcenas, one time PP treasurer who worked for over 20 years in the party treasurer’s office, is now also in preventative custody for fear that he may take flight. He has broken ranks, after lying for years to protect the PP he says, and last week appeared in court to give evidence claiming he made many payments to members of the PP as part of the practice of an “account B”, citing in particular extra and secret payments to President Mariano Rajoy and to the General Secretary of the PP Maria Dolores de Cospedal in 2009 and 2010. He has said that he inherited the system of special payments from the previous treasurer Álvaro Lapuerta over 20 years ago, underlining the apparent “normality” of a double accounting system at the heart of the Partido Popular.

The disclosures by Bárcenas and the alleged existence of an “alternative accounting system are what the media, especially the dailies El País, El Mundo and Público, have been hunting down since the beginning of the year. To add to the scandal also last week the press drew attention to the fact that the President of the Constitutional Tribunal, the highest court in the land, was and is an active militant in the ranks of the PP.  The Washington Post of July 15th described the Spanish as “enraged”, a report that fails to take into account how deeply accustomed are they to corruption at all levels, throughout the 40 years of the dictatorship to this very day,  for at least three-quarters of a century. Official research data has shown increasing concern with corruption and politicians in general, but it is a concern that has only recently shown up in the polls since the movement 15 M and the “Indignados” began to express public anger and dissatisfaction with Government policies.  Protests have certainly grown in both numbers and frequency as people are more and more affected by the cuts in education, health, and extreme unemployment and, as at the same time the accusations of endemic fraud in the Government reach historic levels.  Social networks on the Internet report an increased demand for the President’s resignation; a poll by the television channel La Sexta shows that 68% think the President should resign, but word on the street still has it that “en estas tierras ni dimite ni Dios” ( in this land no one ever resigns). 

In Parliament the Socialist party (PSOE) are demanding the President’s immediate resignation. Alfredo Rubalcaba, the PSOE leader has said if the President does not come before Parliament to explain the situation he will call for a motion of censure, but the absolute majority of the PP allows this Government to block any such attempt if PP members stay with the President. It may be the only way that the President will be forced to resign is through pressure from his own party - where he is far from being on the extreme right - who may take this opportunity to replace the executive with a tougher and harder line on both the cuts and corruption. It is a real dilemma for the electorate, although political pundits on the left are claiming that the resignation of Rajoy is essential as a form of catharsis before the electorate can move to exterminate the moral degradation of State institutions. Strong words, but the alternatives are not clear, and the crucial difficulty is that the Spanish have lived with the custom of buying and selling favours for so long...

Spain is one of the few European countries that has never had a coalition government. After the end of the 40 year dictatorship the Socialists governed for 14 years without a break, followed by 8 years of the PP, 8 again by the Socialists and then PP, back in 2011... It has always seemed that above all the Spanish want stability. But where stability lies now is uncertain.  As members of the various protest movements have made it clear, simply to swap right for left or vice versa is no longer adequate and there is a call for electoral reform. A recent poll by the radio channel “Cadena Ser” has found that the response to the question “who would you vote for today in general elections?” leaves the two major parties way behind Izquierda Unida (IU) on the left, and the Union Progreso y Democracia, (UPyD) on the right. These two parties have currently just over 30 seats between them in Parliament, but in the 2011 general election won only 16 and in 2008 a mere three seats.  Both IU and UPyD have said they will go for electoral reform, but they are still untried in Government. The best the electorate can probably hope for is that come the elections no party wins with an absolute majority, as happened in 2011 and pacts will have to be made.  Will the Spanish get an opportunity to change the Government before 2015, the date set for the next elections? Unlikely, but if and when they do, the future will depend on their determination and success in shaking off deep-seated old habits.



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