Corruption dominates lead-up to Spanish election

Scandal-plagued prime minister Mariano Rajoy is still favourite to win in Sunday’s vote

In the week leading up to the most open and arguably most significant elections their country has had in more than three decades, Spaniards’ attention was meant to be on the candidates. Instead, there have been unwelcome distractions.

On Sunday, the Spanish ambassador to India, Gustavo de Arístegui, resigned after it emerged he had been receiving commissions from private companies while carrying out his diplomatic work.

Then on Tuesday, the former mayor of La Muela in Aragón, María Victoria Pinilla, went on trial along with 39 others, accused of money-laundering and bribery.

On the same day, Montserrat Caballé, the Catalan opera singer who duetted with Freddie Mercury on the 1992 Olympic theme Barcelona, received a suspended sentence for tax fraud.

Little wonder Pablo Iglesias, the candidate for the anti-austerity Podemos party, was applauded when he told supporters recently that if he ended up leading the country, he would bring with him "brooms and mops, because we need to sweep up and clean up so much corruption, so many lies".

Investigations

The campaign leading up to Sunday’s general election has drawn attention to corruption more than any before it.

That's hardly surprising, given that about 2,000 public figures are currently named as suspects in investigations, including former premier of Catalonia Jordi Pujol (for alleged tax fraud), the king's sister, Princess Cristina (tax fraud), and former economy minister and IMF managing director Rodrigo Rato (tax fraud, money-laundering and receiving bribes).

The governing Popular Party (PP) has been most affected by recent scandals, related to everything from a papal visit to Valencia to the sale of land in Madrid.

In 2013, the PP's former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, said he had overseen a longstanding cash fund for the party, which was financed by corporate bribes and used to pay party leaders untaxed "wages". Prime minister Mariano Rajoy became embroiled, even sending text messages of support to Bárcenas in an apparent bid to keep him quiet.

Biting attack

On Monday, Socialist candidate Pedro Sánchez launched a biting attack on Rajoy during their one-on-one televised debate.

The prime minister, Sánchez said, “should be a decent person and you are not”.

With a nervous Rajoy struggling to defend himself, Sánchez was widely seen as the winner. And yet it is the corruption-plagued prime minister who is the narrow favourite to win on Sunday.

Since the number of political scandals started to balloon as the economic crisis began to bite at the end of the last decade, poll after poll has shown corruption is Spaniards’ biggest concern after unemployment.

The anticipated failure of the untainted Sánchez to overtake the unpopular Rajoy in the electoral race can be partly explained by many voters’ reluctance to back the Socialists who led their country into economic crisis in the first place.

Also at play is Spaniards’ tendency to view all the country’s traditional parties with uniform cynicism when it comes to the issue of honesty.

The Socialists have seen their own share of disgrace in recent years, most notoriously when two former premiers of Andalusia were investigated for allegedly siphoning off €136 million from a public fund created for crisis-ridden companies.

Fallacy

“It’s a fallacy to believe that by changing the governing party and choosing a supposedly ‘clean’ one instead, we’re going to end corruption,” said political scientist Víctor Lapuente in a recent study.

“The fact that practically all the Spanish parties that have had major responsibilities [ . . . ] have ended up being muddied by corruption suggests that our problem isn’t about which party is governing, but rather the public institutions within which they operate.”

The recent arrival of Ciudadanos and Podemos – two new parties advocating political regeneration and a crusade against corruption – reflects a growing demand for cleaner politics. With those two parties vying with the Socialists for second place in many recent polls, Sunday’s election is likely to mark a new era in terms of transparency, even if the PP remains in power.

However, some voters are still holding out.

“Corruption is the order of the day: is there a single politician who’s decent?” says Juan Gregorio (55), a butcher from Madrid. Ever since he could vote, in the late 1970s, he has left his voting form blank in protest at what he sees as the dishonesty of his country’s representatives.

“If we all did that, then the politicians would start thinking: ‘We’re doing something wrong here, because nobody’s voting’,” Gregorio said.