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Time for Spain to defy expectations as it battles corruption

Allegations about a culture of corrupt practices in the heart of the governing Partido Popular are just the latest in a litany of scandals.


Former PP treasurer Luis Bárcenas.

In the eye of the storm: The Swiss bank account of Luis Bárcenas has unleashed a political crisis. But will justice be done? Photo: El Mundo.

It was, of course, a shock to hear about the €22 million that the former treasurer of the governing Partido Popular (PP), Luis Bárcenas, had hidden in a Swiss bank account; and equally shocking have been the allegations that for years the party paid its politicians under-the-table bonuses of up to €10,000 per month.

But the depressing thing is, it’s not altogether surprising. This scandal broke in a month when 13 people linked to the PP are awaiting trial for their part in the Gürtel kickbacks case, and with the party’s Madrid premier Ignacio González facing questions over his luxury apartment in Marbella.

Just days ago, Juan José Guëmes resigned his post in the company Unilabs España, after it emerged he had been the PP’s health commissioner in Madrid when the local government oversaw the privatisation of medical analysis services in several hospitals. The contract went to a company that Unilabs bought shortly after Guëmes took up his post there.

We have also seen accusations of a more subtle, but no less sickening type of corruption: the Justice Ministry’s pardoning of a man imprisoned for reckless driving and killing another driver after speeding in the wrong direction along a motorway (the son of Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón works in the law firm that defended the jailed man, and the defendant’s lawyer is the brother of a PP deputy).

The PP is not alone. Across Spain, other cases come to light in a seemingly never-ending stream, involving Catalonia’s CiU coalition, the Socialists and other parties.

Given these apparent cases of cronyism, nepotism, conflict of interest, backhanders, trousering dodgy money – call it what you will – “Bárcenas-gate” can be seen as merely the latest in a long line of political Spanish corruption cases, which are now so numerous their impact causes little more than a shrug.

But this time it’s bigger. Most of the dozens of corruption cases that have blighted Spanish politics in recent years have been related to regional and local administrations. The huge amounts of money generated by the decade-long property boom combined with an often feudal style of government in many parts of the country were the perfect ingredients for a culture of fraud and amorality. Most main parties were involved, but their senior figures in Madrid were rarely implicated.

But if the information that has emerged in the last few days is true, the PP headquarters in Madrid’s calle Génova was for years just as crooked as the most notoriously corrupt municipalities on the Mediterranean coast.

Crucially, Bárcenas’s spell as party treasurer coincided with Mariano Rajoy’s leadership of the PP. Either way, it looks bad for Rajoy: if he knew what was going on, his position is surely untenable; if he didn’t know, why not?

The scandal could hardly come at a worse moment. Rajoy’s government is struggling to get the economy growing again, and bring Europe’s highest jobless rate under control. It’s also deciding how best to deal with Catalonia’s bid for independence. In recent weeks, Spain’s risk premium on the international market has dropped to encouraging levels. How ironic and senseless it would be if the domestic misdeeds of Rajoy’s political party were to send it soaring again.

However, many Spaniards will remain sceptical and wonder how many relevant heads will roll as a result of this scandal. “We will investigate as much as we have to investigate,” said PP deputy leader María Dolores de Cospedal on Monday. For an electorate whose faith in its politicians has dropped to a record low, those words hardly inspire confidence.

The idea of the PP and Socialists – who between them dominate the glut of corruption probes and also the country’s institutions – organising a political investigation is dispiriting at best, and farcical at worst. The PP’s majority in Congress only fuels this suspicion. And many will cast a cynical eye on the discredited justice system’s handling of the case, given its own politicised nature and painfully slow procedures.

Out of Africa

“Spain isn’t Uganda,” Rajoy told his Economy Minister Luis de Guindos last summer, as he argued – rather crassly – that the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy could pull through the debt crisis.

No, Spain isn’t Uganda. It’s Botswana. At least that’s the conclusion of Transparency International’s 2012 corruption perceptions index, which placed Spain joint 30th with the African country, behind Uruguay, Qatar and Cyprus.

“The justice system … goes after the corrupt, wherever they are,” said Spain’s attorney general, Cándido Conde-Pumpido in 2009, after revealing that 730 public officials were being probed. “Unfortunately, they are everywhere.”

Conde-Pumpido was right: in Spain the corrupt do indeed seem to be everywhere. But whether justice will be done is another matter and if the Spanish state is going to restore at least some of the credibility it has been haemorrhaging over the last few years, it now needs to act with the kind of ruthless efficiency that many had believed it incapable of.

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Published: Jan 21 2013
Category: Iberoblog, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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