Socialist party scandals leave Aznar with little opposition in the ring


"Espana va bien," Jose Maria Aznar enjoys repeating, mantra-like. "Spain is doing fine." It sounds infuriatingly smug to his opponents, especially those who remain unemployed, but 18 months after taking office the Spanish conservative Prime Minister no doubt feels he has a right to self-congratulation.

The economy is on course to meet the Maastricht criteria for EMU; the trade unions are working with him rather than against him; and the Basque guerrillas of ETA have been up against the ropes since they shot Miguel Angel Blanco last July.

On the downside from Aznar's point of view, the Catalan and Basque nationalists who prop up his minority government seem to make new demands every week. If Aznar keeps accepting them, he will have the ironic distinction of being the centralist politician who has contributed most to the federalisation - and perhaps ultimately the fragmentation - of the Spanish state. If he calls a halt, he will also have to call a snap election which he is by no means certain to win.

He can take comfort from the fact that the long-ruling Socialist Party (PSOE), which he finally dislodged last year, is in disarray, and performed abysmally in a regional poll in Galicia last month. If the PSOE stays in the headlines, it is mainly because many of its senior members are constantly in court, on charges ranging from massive embezzlement to the organisation of death squads against ETA.

These court cases undoubtedly give short-term advantage to Aznar's Partido Popular (PP). But the so-called "judicialisation" of Spanish politics, and the web of ugly conspiracy theories which surrounds it, give cause to wonder whether Spain's 20-year-old democracy is really "doing fine" at all.

A former PSOE member and an MP got long jail terms last month in the "Filesa case". Filesa was a company which illegally raised huge funds for the PSOE through charging businesses commissions for non-existent consultancy work. It is assumed that at least some businesses got favours in return. Former party leaders, including the charismatic Felipe Gonzalez, denied all knowledge of the scam in court. His evidence did not improve the credibility of politicians.

Meanwhile, the PSOE's first civilian director of the Guardia Civil is currently being tried for embezzling millions. The former operations boss of the secret service was convicted for stealing confidential documents, many of which relate to the "dirty war" against ETA in the 1980s when 27 people were killed. Former interior ministers, Guardia Civil generals and the cream of the antiterrorist command from the period face charges ranging from torture to murder in the months ahead. A number have already admitted their involvement.

The cases themselves are damaging enough, but it is the constant exchange of grave allegations between the two main parties which does most harm to public confidence in the democratic system.

The new Socialist leader, Joaquin Almunia, did make a halting attempt to apologise to the Spanish people after the Filesa case. But his voice was immediately drowned out by his party barons, who refuse to accept any moral responsibility.

They insist, with some justification, that PP funding was equally dodgy and claim that the justice system has become a tool of the conservatives to ruin their party. Something similar is happening in the "dirty war" cases. Instead of dealing with their own backyard, the PSOE constantly allege their conservative predecessors ran similar death squads in the early 1980s.

One of the accused, a former director of State Security, assured me last week that several senior judges were corrupt, that many of the rest had been "got at" by a sinister conspiracy linked to the government and that he had no confidence in a fair trial from Spanish justice.

The fact that powerful forces in the new Spanish establishment, associated with a disgraced banker, have attempted to use secret information on these cases to their own advantage casts another layer of fog on a murky scenario.

A savage media war has ensued, in which the independent but PSOE-leaning El Pais group has been put under enormous judicial pressure by the government. Meanwhile, a video has been widely distributed which purports, convincingly, to show the editor of a pro-PP newspaper engaged in bizarre sex with a Ghanaian prostitute. Many believe it was produced by the intelligence services retained by some of the Socialists investigated by the newspaper.

Do these sinister rumblings mean that Spanish democracy is tearing itself apart, even while everything on the surface is going so fine? The very fact that these trials are taking place, some commentators say, is a mark of the maturity of the new system. But could a society as divided as Spain's really cope peacefully with senior politicians and generals going to prison?