Minister wants to cut number of public figures with immunity from 17,621 to 22

Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón discusses democratic regeneration in wake of high-profile corruption cases

Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón following the interview.
Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón following the interview.Samuel SÁnchez

Of all the reforms announced by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party (PP), there are a few particularly controversial ones, whose ultimate success still remains unclear. One has to do with abortion, and another with measures to regenerate Spain’s democratic institutions in the wake of countless corruption cases that have sunk society’s perception of its political class.

All of these issues have been weighing down Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, who, as the former mayor of Madrid, was one of Spain’s best-loved politicians when he took up his new job in late 2011. But now he ranks next to last in the popularity ratings. In this interview, Gallardón speaks exclusively about his views on democratic regeneration.

Question. Is Spain a corrupt country?

Answer. Spain is a country that has experienced an unacceptable level of corruption. It is an unavoidable reality, but it’s just one side of the coin. The other side is that corruption does not go unpunished here. These days, corruption is not news because of new cases, but because the courts are acting against those who committed crimes — investigating them, trying them, and sending them to prison when deemed necessary. Right now there are no corruption scandals involving events of the last two years, but rather court inquiries into earlier crimes. I think the state’s response has greatly inhibited the temptation felt by political leaders and members of the private sector to indulge in corrupt practices.

Q. Why do you think corruption has made a comeback after the scandals of the 1990s that saw some politicians go to prison?

A. Society should always demand absolutely ethical and moral behavior from its elected officials. Ideally corruption should not occur, not so much because of administrative hurdles or the threat of criminal prosecution, but because of officials’ personal code of ethics. But unfortunately that has not been the case, and I believe that in the last few years there has been a deep decline in the ethical standards of many public officials, who represent a significant minority, and also of a large portion of society, which felt that it could easily live with that kind of conduct.

We need criteria to ensure that no politician who got rich from his position is pardoned

Q. Does corruption thrive in times of economic bonanza, and is there a greater awareness of it at times of crisis?

A. It is obvious that when there is a lot of economic activity going on, there may be a greater risk of corruption among those who want to secure a contract and those who are willing to sell one. Your second statement is correct. Society has become much more demanding of its political class and of public agencies in general. And I think this is the result of collective indignation over the dual reality of this criminal conduct and the tremendous economic difficulties experienced by a significant portion of Spanish society during the crisis.

Q. Twenty years ago, Socialist Party leaders were prosecuted and found guilty of crimes connected with illegal party financing in what was known as the Filesa case. But the Penal Code did not set any punishment for this particular crime, and it continues to be that way. You have promised to include illegal party financing in the Penal Code. How will you do it?

A. The Penal Code reform that is making its way through Congress will include this point as part of the agreement on democratic regeneration that we want to reach with all other groups, in particular the Socialists. Standards will be the same or higher than the highest standards in any European Union country. Criminal responsibility will fall to the individuals who handled the party’s finances, and who will be accountable for any illegal activity. If that activity took place with the knowledge or consent of party leaders, they will be held criminally accountable as well.

Q. Did your party incur in illegal financing in the last 20 years?

A. I have no news of that.

The only people who should retain immunity are those who hold state powers”

Q. No news from your party or no news through the media? The papers are talking about it every day...

A. What you see in the media are individual acts by specific individuals who used their position to increase their personal wealth. All the opaque bank accounts that have emerged are not party accounts, but accounts held by individuals who got rich using the party’s name.

Q. High Court Judge Pablo Ruz, who is investigating the Gürtel case, holds that for 20 years the PP had secret accounts that it used to pay for various things, including bonuses for officials and campaign runs...Is that not illegal party financing?

A. If all that is confirmed by a firm court ruling, I will condemn it wholeheartedly.

Q. Is the partial immunity from the courts granted to politicians in Spain a privilege that needs to be eliminated?

A. Immunity does not need to be a privilege. In fact, it can undermine one’s fundamental right to get a conviction reviewed by a higher court. But no matter how the jurists explain it, Spanish society perceives immunity as a privilege. And I think this requires action from lawmakers. Right now, excluding law enforcement agencies, there are 17,621 people with immunity in Spain. This includes regional and national politicians, members of judicial and attorney bodies, and justices of the peace. If we add members of law enforcement agencies, that figure rises to 280,159. This situation needs to undergo review. Our Judicial Power bill proposes whittling down those 17,621 people to just 22. In my view, the only people who should retain immunity, besides the royal family, are the people who hold state powers: the prime minister, the speakers of Congress and the Senate, the president of the Constitutional Court and the president of the Supreme Court, plus the 17 regional premiers. That adds up to 22 people. There would be no immunity for deputies and ministers like myself. But this will require modifying regional charters and even the Constitution.

Society has become much more demanding of its political class and of public agencies

Q. Spain has another judicial tool, which is really political in nature and controlled by the government: pardons. Is it possible to introduce reforms to prohibit pardons for certain types of crimes?

A. Government pardons are regulated by a 19th-century law that was reformed by the Socialist government in 1988. Since then, ours is the government that has issued the least number of pardons and rejected the most requests for one. This government also has not pardoned any crimes committed by politicians or elected officials who pocketed taxpayers’ money. Some crimes are already legally off limits for a pardon. I think that rather than reform the law, what we need is political criteria to ensure that no politician who got rich off his elected position gets pardoned.

Q. Do you think the king’s decision to bar members of the royal family from working in the private sector is a good decision for democratic regeneration?

A. Yes. I think it is clear that when you receive a salary from the national budget, this is not compatible with private activities.

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