A judge’s decision to file preliminary charges against two Madrid government officials in connection with a corruption probe will make it even harder for the Popular Party (PP) to secure the cross-party deal it needs to hold on to power in the region.
On Tuesday, investigating magistrate Eloy Velasco of the High Court extended the Púnica inquiry to two key members of the Madrid regional government: Lucía Figar, head of the education department, and Salvador Victoria, in charge of internal affairs.
The Púnica case is an alleged bid-rigging scheme that was broken up in late October with the arrest of 35 people in several provinces. The network is believed to have unlawfully awarded as much as €250 million in public contracts, whose beneficiaries had been predetermined by the ringleaders after accepting bribes from the corrupt bidders.
The Madrid PP’s situation right now is chaotic and very dangerous from the point of view of transparency”
Albert Rivera, Ciudadanos leader
The outgoing officials Victoria and Figar had accumulated a remarkable amount of power in recent years. Both awarded contracts to a businessman, Alejandro de Pedro, whose alleged job it was to create positive news stories about regional officials and publish them online to counter negative coverage coming out about the Púnica case. These services were paid for with public money.
Among those arrested at the beginning of the Púnica raid was Francisco Granados, once the top aide to former regional premier Esperanza Aguirre, who recently ran for city mayor and narrowly won most councilors. But Aguirre is expected to lose the mayoral seat to a leftist coalition of Socialists and the Ahora Madrid bloc.
After sustaining heavy losses at the local and regional level on May 24, the Madrid regional assembly is now one of the PP’s last great hopes of retaining power in a key area of Spain.
But the growing shadow of corruption will make it hard for Cristina Cifuentes, the PP’s regional nominee, to forge the agreement she needs to get herself instated.
After obtaining 48 seats in the regional house, the PP needs the support of Ciudadanos, an emerging party that secured 17 seats of its own.
But Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera, who campaigned on a message of democratic renewal, is demanding clear pledges against corruption from the conservatives, who have been struggling with several high-profile graft cases in recent years, including Gürtel and allegations of illegal party financing.
With just a few days to go before Spain’s new local and regional leaders are sworn into office, Cifuentes is trying to get the message across that her team has already done everything necessary to fight corruption.
“The 48 PP deputies who will take office on June 9 have signed an ethics code that we will register at the Madrid Assembly, and which represents our statement of intent against corruption.”
Cifuentes, who was the central government’s delegate in Madrid before running for regional premier, passed on the blame for Púnica to former regional premier Aguirre. “This does not affect me. I ask to be held responsible for my own list [of running mates],” she said.
But Ciudadanos leader Rivera on Monday confirmed that all the graft cases affecting the Madrid branch of the PP are making it difficult for him to extend the support Cifuentes needs to become the next regional premier.
“The Madrid PP’s situation right now is chaotic and very dangerous from the point of view of transparency and the fight against corruption,” he said in a radio interview on the Cope network. “Let’s see how they react, let’s see how committed the PP really is against corruption. Let’s see how it cleans up.”
Later, on the Cadena SER radio network, Rivera mentioned both the PP and the Socialists (PSOE) in connection with corruption investigations. In Andalusia, the PSOE is laboring under the ERE case, involving the diversion of millions of euros in public subsidies meant for struggling businesses. Ciudadanos has demanded that two ex-regional premiers currently under investigation be expelled from all their official positions before supporting the investiture of Susana Díaz.
“This is our great concern in Madrid and Andalusia,” said Rivera. “We are worried that the candidates will not break with the past and that their parties will continue to stain our institutions.”