Incorrigible Spain

Article written by Fernando Betancor.

Spain held a second national election on Sunday, just six months after a December result that returned a fragmented and ungovernable Parliament. The current result has been a clear victory for the ruling Partido Popular and a vindication of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who had been under increasing fire from right and left for his handling (or lack thereof) of the economic and social crises besetting his country.

The Populares won back 15 seats from the December mark of 122, to the detriment of rival centrist party Ciudadanos, which lost 8 seats to end at 32. The Socialists also did better than expected, losing only 5 seats after polls predicted a much greater collapse. The new coalition party of the left, Unidos Podemos, underwhelmed and lost votes, keeping the same 71 seats jointly held by Podemos and Izquierda Unida, but failing to capitalize on what should have been a broader base.

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It seems clear that the results of the British referendum on EU membership favored the Populares, with Spanish voters preferring the devil they know. Better a “do nothing” party that merely executed orders from Brussels, than one that might piss off Spain’s EU patrons and have the country placed in the same Black Hole the Troika built for Syriza’s Greece.

The fear of further instability was heightened by pre-election polls showing a surging Unidos Podemos. There seemed a real possibility of a coalition of the left handing the keys of the Moncloa to Pablo Iglesias. This was a clear dynamic in the ground lost by Ciudadanos; many conservative voters must have felt that they could not afford a protest vote that would weaken the PP without giving Albert Rivera’s party a realistic shot at victory. These voters got scared and ran home.

On another level, the election has not resolved Spain’s fragmentation problem. The most likely coalition of the Partido Popular + Ciudadanos still fails to yield a governing majority. In fact, it is almost unchanged from the previous balance, 169 in June versus 162 in December. Nor is the left able to form a “progressive coalition”. Unless the PSOE suddenly decides to go back on its one fundamental promise – no deals with Mariano Rajoy – Spain will face a third election in six months time. Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez will be under immense pressure to avoid that; but it is hard to see how he can do so without losing even more voters to his more uncompromising rivals in Unidos Podemos.

It is nevertheless distressing that 13.3 million Spaniards, fully 55% of the electorate, are knowingly supporting parties that are pervasively corrupt. Institutionally venal – corruption in Spain is not a question of individuals, but of system, a historical remnant deliberately carried over from Franco’s crony dictatorship to preserve elite power and political stability as a price of the Transition. The Partido Popular and Partido Socialista are relics of the machine politics and kick-back systems of 19th century America, but operating in a 21st European state.

Part of the problem is that there are no palatable alternatives for voters. The Populares and Socialistas are virtually indistinguishable from each other: Establishment parties that sit firmly in the center and cater to the country’s elites, which is why they’ve been allowed to rotate in power for three decades without the governing class batting an eye. Then there is Ciudadanos, with a moderate, centrist political program and talk of “reform” and “transparency” that lacks details or a realistic path to fulfillment. The most that can be said of them is that they are the Partido Popular’s 15 year old daughter, of interest only because of her political virginity and innocence. Unidos Podemos is left-wing reformist party made up of disillusioned Socialists, Communists and college professors with a wholly unrealistic economic program and whose only hope is to ride a crisis to victory. Finally, there are a slew of tiny regional parties that count for almost nothing, serve only to divide the left and allow the Populares to remain competitive in elections. They are prickly, jealous of their prerogatives, protective of their regionalism and as difficult to bring into coalitions as herding cats.

Message from PP to Franco: “Thanks, Dad.”

But as much as Spanish institutions are to blame, Spanish voters are even more culpable. They may moan all they want about the corruption in their country, but they have no one to blame but themselves. Res, non verba is a Latin phrase meaning “actions, not words” and  the actions of Spanish voters are clear support for one of the most corrupt institutional regimes in Europe, in company with paragons Greece and Cyprus.

  1. The ruling Partido Popular has been running an illegal slush fund for 18 years with secret, undeclared payouts to almost every senior party member including acting Prime Minister Rajoy, according to the evidece found on disks in the possession of ex-treasurer Luís Bárcenas, who is the only one indicted so far;
  2. In a case linked to the one above, over 40 top Populares officials at the regional and national level, as well as numerous businessmen, were indicted in a vast bribes-for-public contracts network that had operated for years in PP regions and which was estimated to havesiphoned off hundreds of millions of euros to party coffers and to individual politicians’ pockets;
  3. Former PP Finance Minister Rodrigo Rato, along with other Caja Madrid Board Members and executives,  racked up millions in debtthat they didn’t have to repay on “phantom credit cards” even as that institution was imploding in the biggest bank insolvency in Spanish history and had to be rescued by public funds.  Mr. Rato was also charged with tax fraud;
  4. The Popular party bosses in Valencia, Alicante and Castellón – including former Regional President Alfonso Rus – are under investigation in another bribes-for-contracts hustle in regions the Partido Popular has ruled for two decades;
  5. Most recently, the Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz, was implicated in a political “witch hunt” of Catalan politicians who support independence as well as their families. Recordings of his meetings with the head of the Catalan Anti-Fraud Office reveal a minister willing to fabricate evidence and conduct investigations without court warrants and in violation of legal procedures for such actions, as well as revealing that Prime Minister Rajoy had full knowledge of his minister’s activities. The only response by the government has been to open an investigation into who leaked the tapes;

But the Partido Popular is not alone in its cesspool; in Spain, no one is free of the stink of corruption.

  • The Socialist Party of Andalucia had been siphoning money out of a public support fund for local companies requiring financial assistance in their restructuring of lay-offs and early retirements. The fund itself is legal; but Socialist politicians were knowingly paying out on false claims and pocketing commissions, as well as freely spending taxpayer euros on cocaine and prostitutes to the tune of 140 million euros;
  • The royal family is also well-represented, with Princess Cristina de Borbón indicted in the corruption and tax fraud charges engulfing her husband, Iñaki Urdangarín. Mrs. de Borbón denies knowledge of wrongdoing despite having been a board member on her husband’s company throughout the period in which the illicit activities were alleged to have occurred;
  • The grandfather of post-Franco Catalan politics, Jordi Pujol i Casals, has also confessed to money laundering and tax evasion of vast undeclared sums in Switzerland. This was a shock to pro-independence Catalans, who had felt their region to be less corrupt than the rest of Spain, but Catalan politics are still Spanish politics, and Spanish political institutions are thoroughly rancid.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and a rotten tree produces no wholesome fruit. To say Spain is corrupt is like saying the Sahara Desert is warm. The most recent election is proof, if any was wanting, that corruption carries no political or legal stigma: like a “Teflon Don,” Mariano Rajoy has not suffered a whit for the perpetuation of and connivance in his party’s racketeering; on the contrary, he has been rewarded with more seats than in December. Susana Díaz, the four-time Socialist boss of Andalucía, just won a fifth term, undeterred by the sins of her party lieutenants, with more whores and narcotics than a Joe Pesci movie.

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“Teflon Don” Mariano Rajoy is impervious to the uncovering of the vast racketeering network run by his Populares and the “rival” Socialists

Like any good mafia organization, the Spanish political system breeds a culture of omertà, or “silence”. Whistleblowers are few and far between, possibly because Spain is one of the few economically advanced nations that has no whistleblower protection laws. The politicos are expected to shred the evidence and take their punishment in silence if they are caught, but never to implicate the bosses; which is what makes the “disloyalty” of Luís Bárcenas so heinous to his former caporegime in the Partido Popular.

Even when they are caught out, punishment may never follow on the fact, with a Spanish judiciary that is among the worst regarded in Europe. Underfunded, wholly politicized, with no meaningful judicial independence, the Spanish courts are weak and ineffective deterrents to corruption. Indicted persons may spend years, even a decade, awaiting a verdict which is often little more than home confinement and a financial slap-on-the-wrist.

It is no surprise then that Northern Europeans are dumbfounded when they read about each new corruption case in Spain, and the fact that no one resigns office or even feels the slightest remorse at their behavior – vexation at being caught being perhaps the strongest emotion possible in those stony breasts. They wonder without understanding what  on Earth is going on in Spain; they wonder if maybe Albert Camus was right…”L’Afrique commence aux Pyrénées”… What is beyond question after this June election is that Spain is incorrigible.

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