Against a back drop of allegations of fraud directed at the son-in-law of the King, accusations of corrupt practice by top members of the Spanish Government have been flying around Madrid since early January, and now around the world, accompanied by the farcical spectacle of ministers tripping over each other, as they first deny, then attempt to explain, then roundly deny again accusations of systematic long term corrupt practice at the heart of Government. Minor members of the ruling party suddenly resign or go on sick-leave, an ex-member of Parliament in the PP says the accusations are true, the President says they are false, the major protagonist takes the weekend off at an expensive ski resort, the President flies off to Berlin for the day, another member of Parliament apologises to the people of Spain. The Government threatens action against anyone and everyone who repeats the accusations; none the less everybody is covering the story; the Judge sacked last year for investigating corruption charges is back in town. Parliament is turned into a circus with the Government vetoing all attempts to clarify the accusations. It is theatre at its most surreal. Back in the real world, the protesters are preparing to camp out on the freezing pavements, demanding government resignations now.
In a Spain where accusations of corruption have been commonplace and treated with a mixture of sarcasm and resignation for years, this time it is different. On the 18th of January the daily paper El Mundo published the first accusations related to alleged illegal extra payments made to “Partido Popular” (PP) members at the highest level and throughout the ranks of the governing party. The knock-out blow was delivered on January 31st. El Páis published details on its front page of supposed copies of the precise amounts paid in cash to practically all the executive of the PP over years, on a regular basis. Including payments to the President Mariano Rajoy. The images have gone round the world of slanted joined-up writing, names and initials, amounts in euros and in pesetas. The big question is who wrote up the accounts of a supposedly hidden accounting system of the PP. Was it Luis Bárcenas, (he says no) former treasurer, still with an office in the PP headquarters and the financial brains for nearly 20 years in the party? Luis Bárcenas, also former senator for Cantabria, has been involved in spectacular corruption cases before. He is linked to and was forced to resign over, the “caso Gürtel”, the earlier case based on accusations of corruption on the part of many senior members of the PP, which the Supreme Court threw out finally last year, at the same time using it to get rid of Judge Balthazar Garzón. It is with a certain irony that some are now petitioning the General Council of Judicial Power, CGPJ in Spanish initials and the official organ of control of the judiciary, to bring back this very Judge so that he can deal with episode two of what looks daily more and more like a shameful history of government corruption.
It clearly takes more than 40 years to shake off the effects of living under a fascist dictatorship, where corruption at every level in society was the norm and for many ordinary people the only way to survive. The modern constitutional monarchy was created in the late 70s on the basis of immunity for all involved in repressive and corrupt practice during the Franco regime. This immunity from charges of corruption handed out to all and sundry affects even today the way the populace see corruption. There has been no calling to account, as in Germany at the end of the Second World War over the massacre of 6 million Jews. With killing and corruption wiped off the slate, the discussion of ethical and moral issues has been made difficult in democratic Spain. This is thought by some commentators to be at the bottom of Spain’s hitherto cavalier response to corruption in high places.
Twenty years ago the reaction in the street to high profile corruption was mainly to treat it as a choice subject for gossip, as for example the 15 year dynasty of Jesus Gil as president of Atletico Madrid football club and Mayor of Marbella. As Mayor, whilst making the Costa de Sol famous he was also destroying half the coastline of the south of Spain with illegal urbanization and opening the doors to money laundering, criminals both indigenous and ex-patriot, not least the Russian Mafia who moved its summer headquarters to the Marbella coast early during his reign. He was imprisoned in the 70’s over a case connected with jerry-building, in which people died when the roof collapsed. He was pardoned by Franco. Gil died from a stroke in 2004, by that time banned from public service but still in control of Marbella via proxies, although no longer officially Mayor, and treated by all with some amusement and even sympathy. The Spanish electorate has not until very recently considered corruption to be a serious bar to political power.
Today there is a major shift in attitude, although it has been very slow in coming. The Centre for Sociological Investigations (CIS) in opinion surveys published over the past 10 years show a small but steady increase in the number of people who regard corruption and the behaviour of the political class in general, to be amongst the top three major problems for Spain. Today, perhaps the most important and positive side effect of the economic crisis and harsh public service cuts is that people have become far more critical of the Government. They have questions for their leaders and are prepared to go on the streets to demand answers. With an apparently sleep-walking opposition in Parliament and TV stations said to be under pressure to modify facts, the use of social networks on the web has become paramount; and not only Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. In only two days in January, over 600,000 people signed a petition demanding the President’s resignation, the figure rising to one million by the end of the first week in February.
What are the chances that the justice system will investigate without prejudice what has become known as “Bárcenasgate”? The Government appears to have “fixed” the Anti-Fraud Agency (ONIF ) early in 2012, by bringing back one of its own, Pilar Valiente, as number two in the agency. Valiente was forced to resign as President ten years earlier from another government agency for supposedly acting in the interests of some of those implicated in the “Gescartera” case, two of whom were eventually sentenced to prison terms for fraud. On arrival as number two in the Anti-Fraud agency Valiente dismissed six major investigators, one of whom was involved in investigating the “caso Gürtel”. Her action was described by the agency as a perfectly normal re-adjustment.
It appears that the Minister for Justice Ruiz Gallardon has been busy during January too, planning basic changes to the same General Council of Judicial Power, (CGPJ) quoted earlier, that will alter the rules by which members are selected, reduce their powers and limit numbers and salaries. Whilst the President of the CGPJ Gonzalo Moliner strongly denies the changes will affect the administration of justice, some judges describe them as taking the independence of the judiciary back to the times before the Constitution; that is to the period of Franco’s dictatorship.
As at last the major actors in this saga of corruption are called to appear in court; Luis Bárcenas, amongst others, has been questioned by the State Prosecutor and he goes to the High Court on February 25th, the crucial questions now are how, under heavy pressure from the Government and with their hands seemingly partially tied, will the courts behave? Will the technically independent Judiciary keep faith with the people, hold its nerve and bring the cases to court without delay to be tried free of political interference? The answers are of momentous importance to the future of Spain.