SPANISH POLITICS

Scandals force PP to negotiate anti-corruption points with Ciudadanos

Minority party knows it must win concessions on dealing with graft

Mariano Rajoy and Albert Rivera last week.
Mariano Rajoy and Albert Rivera last week.Claudio Alvarez / EL PAÍS

Time and again, one of the main concerns voters express in opinion polls in Spain is corruption. The success of Podemos and Ciudadanos in the last two elections was in large part due to their unequivocal stance on eradicating graft, which has blighted the two main parties that have dominated politics since the 1980s, the Socialists (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP).

Little wonder then, that three of the six points the center-right Ciudadanos put to the PP last week as requirements for supporting interim Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the PP in his bid to form a government demanded that he tackle corruption in his party.

Rajoy, whose PP obtained 137 seats at the repeat election of June 26, needs 176 for a congressional majority. If he bids for reinstatement and fails to obtain this figure, there would be a run-off in which the PP would only need more yes votes than no votes. In this event, an abstention from other parties would be sufficient. An investiture vote is expected to take place on August 30.

In recent years, the PP has been hit by one police investigation after another: the Gürtel and Taula kickbacks for contracts scams, the Barcenas case, involving off-the books payments to senior party officials, and Púnica, which saw PP officials in Madrid buy and sell public land for their own gain. Dozens of elected PP officials have been targeted for investigation, with many awaiting trial in jail.

Spain has more officials protected by judicial privileges than any other country in Europe

Ciudadanos knows that if it is to act as kingmaker to the PP, it must be seen not only to be not involved in any graft, but to have done its utmost to get the PP to take action against wrongdoers.

The first of Ciudadanos’ six points requires the PP to expel anybody charged with corruption from the party. The fourth point demands an end to amnesties for those found guilty of graft, and the sixth calls for a parliamentary commission to look into the Barcenas case.

The other three points call for greater transparency in the way Spain’s parties draw up their lists of candidates, an end to privileges that prevent deputies from being tried by lower courts, and a maximum two-terms in office for prime ministers.

In Germany, the United Kingdom, France or Italy, it would be unthinkable for a politician accused of corruption to remain in office, and much less to be pardoned after being found guilty. Similarly, deputies can be hauled before lower courts like anybody else when accused of wrongdoing.

So why does Spain have to pass laws to bring itself into line with the rest of Europe?

“In other countries politicians stand down because it is demanded by society, and understood by politicians that this is what they must do,” says Jesús Lizcano, president of the Spanish branch of corruption watchdog Transparency International. “There is a conceptual, structural, and institutional difference in other countries,” he adds. “We are the exception with regard to many things in the rest of Europe.”

Spain has more officials protected by judicial privileges than any other country in Europe. In Portugal and Italy, only the president enjoy immunity from prosecution by a lower court, and can only be tried in the Supreme Court; in Spain there are some 10,000 individuals who enjoy that status, among them politicians, judges and public prosecutors.

Spain occupies 18th place out of 28 in Transparency International’s ranking of public perception of corruption within the European Union.

“Other countries have generated a more solid, ethically based political and democratic culture about what is acceptable and unacceptable,” says Fernando Jiménez Sánchez, a lecturer in political science and administration, and an expert on the Council of Europe.

“This doesn’t need to be backed by laws,” he adds. “Ciudadanos’ measures are not a bad idea in strategic terms, so as not to get its fingers burnt [as part of any pact with the PP], although they won’t guarantee any improvement in public ethics. They include eccentricities such as limiting terms of office, which makes no sense in a parliamentary regime.”

During the last election campaign, Rivera insisted that Rajoy stand down. His party’s willingness to support the PP in trying to form a government has forced him to apply certain terms and conditions, one of which is to create a new framework to fight corruption and bring Spain more into line with its European neighbors in this regard.

Sign up for our newsletter

EL PAÍS English Edition has launched a weekly newsletter. Sign up today to receive a selection of our best stories in your inbox every Saturday morning. For full details about how to subscribe, click here

“There has been criticism that some of the measures are excessive, which might be true, such as requiring politicians to resign when they are accused of corruption… but it’s also true that this country has been excessive in allowing politicians to steal,” says José Manuel Villegas, the deputy secretary general of Ciudadanos.

“There has been too much corruption. We have to win the electorate’s trust,” he adds. “With these measures, we aim to make it clear that the fight against corruption continues, and that this will allow us to support Rajoy in Congress when he tries to form a government.”

The PP’s executive committee meets on Wednesday to discuss Ciudadanos’ six points.

English version by Nick Lyne.