Time for Spain to defy expectations as it battles corruption

21st January 2013, Comments 0 comments

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

In the eye of the storm: The Swiss bank account of Luis Brcenas 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 Brcenas, 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, its not altogether surprising. This scandal broke in a month when 13 people linked to the PP are awaiting trial for their part in the Grtel kickbacks case, and with the partys Madrid premier Ignacio Gonzlez facing questions over his luxury apartment in Marbella.

Just days ago, Juan Jos Gumes resigned his post in the company Unilabs Espaa, after it emerged he had been the PPs 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 Gumes took up his post there.

We have also seen accusations of a more subtle, but no less sickening type of corruption: the Justice Ministrys 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-Gallardn works in the law firm that defended the jailed man, and the defendants 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 Catalonias 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 Brcenas-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 its 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 Madrids calle Gnova was for years just as crooked as the most notoriously corrupt municipalities on the Mediterranean coast.

Crucially, Brcenass spell as party treasurer coincided with Mariano Rajoys 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 didnt know, why not?

The scandal could hardly come at a worse moment. Rajoys government is struggling to get the economy growing again, and bring Europes highest jobless rate under control. Its also deciding how best to deal with Catalonias bid for independence. In recent weeks, Spains risk premium on the international market has dropped to encouraging levels. How ironic and senseless it would be if the domestic misdeeds of Rajoys 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 Mara 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 countrys institutions organising a political investigation is dispiriting at best, and farcical at worst. The PPs majority in Congress only fuels this suspicion. And many will cast a cynical eye on the discredited justice systems handling of the case, given its own politicised nature and painfully slow procedures.

Out of Africa

Spain isnt Uganda, Rajoy told his Economy Minister Luis de Guindos last summer, as he argued rather crassly that the eurozones fourth-largest economy could pull through the debt crisis.

No, Spain isnt Uganda. Its Botswana. At least thats the conclusion of Transparency Internationals 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 Spains attorney general, Cndido 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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