Podemos, the new anti-austerity party that is leading Spanish polls, has hit back at accusations that one of its leaders engaged in tax fraud, stemming from a payment he received from leftist Latin American governments.
The party says the allegations are part of a government and media witch hunt fed by fears Podemos will emulate Greece's Syriza party and win elections later this year.
Last month, Spanish media revealed that Juan Carlos Monedero, the party's third-in-command, received €425,000 in 2013 from the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Mr Monedero (52) said the payment was for advising those administrations on the creation of a Latin American currency union.
There has been speculation in the media about the payment’s tax status and minister for finance Cristóbal Montoro identified Mr Monedero as the target of a financial investigation.
At the end of January, the Podemos politician appeared to avoid any sanction by making a voluntary payment of €200,000 to the treasury.
In a press conference yesterday, Mr Monedero insisted he had not broken the law and described the scandal as a government “set-up, with the intention of dismantling, through the media, what they cannot gain in elections”.
Mr Monedero said that the recent victory of Syriza, which has a close relationship with Podemos, in the Greek elections had provoked the government and sectors of the media into hounding him over the payment.
Mr Monedero also cited his party's performance in polls as a factor which had riled opponents. Despite only being founded a year ago, Podemos has a clear lead over the governing People's Party (PP) and opposition Socialists, according to Metroscopia polling firm.
“The persecution that I’ve been through for the last month is a symptom of the weakness of the regime of 1978,” Mr Monedero said, in reference to the year the Spanish constitution was drawn up. Podemos has pledged to overhaul the document if it gets into power.
Mr Monedero did, however, acknowledge that the scandal has damaged the image of his party, which has made the battle against corruption a priority. He also admitted he was unable to present documented details of the advisory work he had done for the Latin American governments.
The incident has given ammunition to those who paint Podemos as a radical leftist party inspired by firebrands. Mr Monedero, who is a former advisor to the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, refused to answer questions about that country yesterday.
While its policies remain vague in many areas, Podemos has appeared to attempt to shed its radical image in recent months. Pablo Iglesias, its 36-year-old leader, has played down connections to Latin American administrations and says he has no intention of emulating Venezuela.
Spain has a packed electoral calendar in 2015, including regional elections in May and a general election due by the end of the year.
Sociologist Josep Lobera believes cases such as the Monedero scandal will only serve to polarise the country’s already divided political landscape. He anticipates more controversies.
“This is going to generate, on the one hand, a public opinion that is extremely opposed to Podemos and, on the other, an opinion that is extremely entrenched in favour of Podemos,” Mr Lobera said.