Over 200 elected officials face accusations yet retain protection
Five regions account for the lion's share of corruption investigations
Taking advantage of the principle that any accused person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, political parties use discretionary ethics to let suspects in corruption cases retain party membership, and even remain in public positions whose wages are paid with taxpayers' money. Taking into account only the most relevant cases, there are at least 200 elected officials involved in corruption cases in just five of Spain's 17 regions.
Politicians who have been charged with corrupt practices have occupied -- or continue to do so -- positions in regional assemblies and administrations, in provincial agencies and on local councils. Of those analyzed for this story, the majority (113) work for regional authorities. In the Balearic Islands alone, there are 76 of them.
Political corruption is not the exclusive realm of any party, but the conservative Popular Party (PP) ranks first. There are nearly 50 PP corruption suspects in the Balearics, plus another 50 or so in other regions, including Murcia. Second place on the corruption list goes to the now-defunct Unió Mallorquina (UM), a regional party from the Balearics that produced nearly 40 suspects. Third on the list is the Socialist Party with over 30 members facing charges, mainly in Catalonia and Andalusia. In this latter region, there are also councilors and mayors from the United Left coalition who are accused of misconduct; some of these have already received their court sentences. Catalan nationalists from the region's CiU ruling bloc have also been indicted.
A whole other section of the list is filled with public officials who belong to independent parties, such as the late Jesús Gil's old formation (GIL) in Marbella.
Codes of ethics were brandished high and then ignored
Geographically, political corruption shows significant diversity, even if the Valencian region, Andalusia, Catalonia and Galicia seem particularly hard hit by high-profile cases. Then there is Madrid, home to one of the biggest scandals in democratic history: the Gürtel case, a bribes-for-contracts scheme that affected members of the regional government under Esperanza Aguirre and four local councils. The suspects were removed from their posts and are still under investigation. But the islands seem especially attractive for corruption purposes. In 2010 alone, a total of 200 individuals ranging from politicians to businesspeople and civil servants were charged with real estate crimes in the Canary Islands.
The principle of innocence until guilt is proven in a court; the slowness of the justice system in dealing with most cases; and the personal nature of election certificates, which cannot be claimed back by parties even though the Spanish voting system works with closed lists -- all these work together to make it possible for corruption suspects to keep working as elected officials and representatives until a court sentence disqualifies them from public office.
For instance, despite the long list of corruption suspects in the Balearic Islands, there are only four politicians in prison: three from the PP and one from UM. Barely 20 convictions have been handed down in the six regions with the greatest number of known cases. In some cases, convicted individuals were later pardoned.
The fight against corruption and zero tolerance for favors, commissions and perks are on the lips of all party officials. Codes of ethics were brandished high, then systematically ignored, and parties continue to tolerate the presence of corruption suspects (and even convicted ones) in their ranks because for the most part it does not seem to create a backlash at the polls. In fact, a 2011 CIS survey showed that the PP was viewed by citizens as the party that is most involved in corruption cases, yet a few months later it obtained a resounding absolute majority in general elections. Now in government, the PP has decided to create a Transparency Law making it mandatory to release a lot of information that was in fact always public. This will pose a few added obstacles for corruption suspects, but it is not the end to all evils.
Now in government, the PP has decided to create a Transparency Law
The latest gesture in Congress enjoyed support from the PP, the Socialist Party, the leftist Izquierda Plural and UPyD. This latter party demanded immediate legal reforms to ensure that being formally investigated for corruption becomes a valid cause for ineligibility to be seated in the lower house. But, as the Socialists and nationalists pointed out, demanding the resignation of a corruption suspect would violate the principle of innocence, and could in itself be unconstitutional.
Another possibility would be finding a way to temporarily suspend the individual from office, as is the case with civil servants, even judges. This would mean significant changes to electoral law.
In the meantime, corruption remains ensconced in public institutions. In six months' time we will see whether the consideration of possible legal reforms to remove corruption suspects from office and keep them from election lists has gotten us anywhere. And even if it does, will it be enough?
Lack of convictions
- Of a total of over 200 officials targeted by corruption investigations, there are nearly 50 Popular Party suspects in the Balearics, plus another 50 or so in other regions, including Murcia.
- Punching above its weight, the now-defunct Unió Mallorquina (UM) from the Balearics accounts for nearly 40 suspects, while representatives of the Socialist Party, United Left and CiU Catalan nationalists also face allegations, or have been convicted.
- In 2010 alone, a total of 200 individuals ranging from politicians to businesspeople and civil servants were charged with real estate crimes in the Canary Islands.
- Four politicians from the Balearics are currently in prison, while court cases relating to corruption across six regions have led to a total of just 20 convictions.