Spain: Rebuilding public morality

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy
4 February 2013 – El País (Madrid)

Suspected of having received money from the slush funds of the People's Party, the prime minister has defended his integrity. But for El Pais, which published the "Bárcenas notes", his political future is a secondary issue. The big challenge is rebuilding the entire Spanish political system.

Appearing before the leaders of his party on February 2 to defend his integrity, Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy emphatically denied that he had ever touched dirty money. We have no doubt of his sincerity, and we are sure that we share this impression with many citizens, whether they voted for him in the elections or not.

This, though, is not the issue worrying the Spanish public. What is worrying them is the evidence of the fortune piled away by the former People's Party (PP) treasurer Luis Bárcenas beyond the reach of the Spanish Treasury. Also, Bárcenas's connections with the Gürtel affair, which has seen numerous elected public officials from the PP indicted for corruption, and revelations from individuals and sectors close to the PP itself that irregular payments have been paid to the party leadership for years.

We now know that the payment and accounting system that Bárcenas ran, continuing the established practices in the party, was shut down by a decision of the general secretary, María Dolores de Cospedal, and by Mariano Rajoy himself.

That makes the party's bunkering down in face of the revelations relatively incomprehensible, when it was precisely the two main current leaders who decided to put an end to the suspicions of irregularities dragged into the light of day by the discovery of webs of corruption like those exposed by the Gürtel affair.

Positive steps

The promises of transparency made by the president, including a public declaration of his income and assets, must be seen as positive steps. It cannot be claimed, though, that this transparency has been as a general rule normal in the party after so many episodes, which started off with the dubious practices of its first treasurer, Rosendo Naseiro.

It should be enough to recall the sentencing of the ex-president of the Baleares region and former Minister under Aznar, Jaume Matas, the imprisonment of [Francisco] Correa [the main defendant in the Gürtel scandal, a corruption scandal that implicated regional PP party figures and businessmen that had received favours in calls for public tender and concessions] and accusations of bribery and fraud against PP mayors and councillors.

The argument over the transparency of the accounts also suffers from a fundamental weakness: the permanent shadow of Luis Bárcenas, who for 20 years shared the financial secrets of the party headquarters. It may be true that the €22m kept by the ex-treasurer in a Swiss bank account are unconnected to the political party, but what is no longer in doubt is that the manager and the treasurer of the same era was made a multi-millionaire [and a tax cheat, now pardoned] precisely by the government of a party whose accounts he managed for so many years.

It is up to the courts now to determine how Bárcenas amassed his fortune and to establish the veracity of his accounting records. The leaders of the PP must now explain to their voters and the general public how it was possible that they gave their trust to a fiscal offender for decades, even following his expulsion and amid serious allegations of corruption. Politically, though, it will clearly be difficult to disengage from a leader who got rich in an office very close to theirs.

No half-way democracy

Otherwise the prime minister will be much mistaken if, after appearing before his party, he supposes that the citizens will accept the explanations that the revelations of the last few weeks amount to a conspiracy against his party or person.

The justice system will rule on what happened in the past. But politics should look to the present and to the future, and here we are talking about democracy. Not about a half-way democracy, in which institutions are hemmed in by dark forces and de facto powers, but about a European country, with leaders (in power and in opposition) that are above any suspicion.

It is normal that, faced with the revelations the citizens of Spain will show their outrage, fuelled by a financial crisis caused partly by the housing bubble that fuelled political corruption. It is therefore essential to bring in a programme for a democratic revival, including the legal and moral rearmament of our institutions – a movement whose leadership cannot take on board any of the existing political forces when the vast majority of them are under suspicion.

The political class, held in very low esteem by the citizen, as all the polls show, must be aware of this – especially those who are in office. To wall themselves off against the criticism, to ignore reality, not to heed the justified protests of the street, is an exercise that will lead only to frustration and melancholy.

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer

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