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Scandal rocks Spanish opposition pre-vote

MADRID – Spain’s main opposition Popular Party was embroiled in scandal Tuesday over alleged corruption and spying less than three weeks before regional elections in Galicia and the Basque Country.

The corruption scandal erupted on Friday when National Court judge Baltasar Garzon ordered the arrest of five people with close ties to the party who are suspected of bribery, influence peddling and money laundering.

It deepened on Tuesday when it was disclosed that Garzon, best-known internationally for his pursuit of Latin American dictators, had so far named 34 people as official suspects and formally accused three others.

One of the three accused by Garzon is Francisco Correa, an entrepreneur who has organised PP events and who media reports say is behind murky building permits and other lucrative contracts awarded by PP municipal councils in Madrid, Valencia and elsewhere.

The corruption scandal follows allegations made in January in left-wing daily newspaper El Pais that the Madrid regional government had spied on internal rivals of its head Esperanza Aguirre, a former PP education minister.

While no top PP official including its leader Mariano Rajoy is accused of involvement in either affair, analyst Carlos Malo de Molina said the scandals were "negatively affecting" the PP and Rajoy ahead of the regional elections in Galicia and the Basque Country on 1 March.

The president of the Sigma Dos polling firm said the investigations were "negatively affecting" the PP’s ability to sap support for the ruling Socialists was even though Spain is facing its first recession in 15 years.

Regional elections in Galicia and the Basque Country on 1 March are seen as a test of Rajoy’s leadership.

"This is a detail which does not help from an electoral point of view. Not everything depends on the way the PP leadership reacts," he told AFP.

A telephone poll of 800 people carried out at the end of January by Sigma Dos found the PP trailing the Socialists by 7.6 percentage points.

During the last general election in March 2008 the PP trailed the Socialists by just 2.9 percent.

Among the 34 people named as suspects by Garzon in the corruption scandal were the mayors of two towns located to the west of Madrid, each man affiliated to the PP.

One was pressured by the party into stepping down on Monday, while a councillor with the Madrid regional government also stepped down after media reports linked him to the affair. He has not been officially named a suspect.

Rajoy has announced an internal investigation into the corruption allegations while the Madrid regional government is probing the spying allegations.

[AFP / Expatica]