On Wednesday, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy will become the first sitting head of government to take the witness stand in court since the country returned to democracy in the late 1970s. The prime minister has been meeting with advisors to prepare for what could well be the trickiest public appearance of his two terms in office: his statements at the Gürtel corruption trial, involving a vast kickbacks-for-contracts scheme affecting Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) since 2009.
The trial began on October 4 with 37 defendants, chief among them Francisco Correa, a businessman considered the mastermind behind a graft scheme that has already brought down senior PP figures, such as the once-powerful party treasurer Luis Bárcenas.
Observers are now wondering whether these and other individuals currently in prison will ask to be present on Wednesday to watch Rajoy reply to questions that, as a witness, he is legally bound to answer truthfully.
The PP had worked hard to try to get Rajoy, 62, to provide statements via video conference, but the court decided to force him to show up in person. The reasoning was that he was not subpoenaed in connection with his position as prime minister – which would have allowed him the special privilege of handing in a written deposition – but as the former secretary general of the PP, which makes him a regular citizen.
The details of Rajoy’s court appearance remain open to speculation
Media coverage of the historic event will match the trial for sheer scope: 312 reporters from 62 Spanish and 21 foreign news organizations are expected to show up at the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s High Court, in San Fernando de Henares. French, Russian and German television crews will provide images of an appearance that seems set to attract even more attention than Princess Cristina de Borbón’s own court appearance over the Noos case in early 2016. Security measures will be particularly tight.
The details of Rajoy’s appearance remain open to speculation. Little is known about where he will sit inside the courtroom, although it does seem clear that he will not use the same chair as all other previous witnesses and defendants. The subpoena suggests that Rajoy will be placed somewhere between the judges and the defense attorneys.
Rajoy will take questions from José Mariano Benítez de Lugo, a lawyer who heads the popular accusation brought against Rajoy by Adade, an association of progressive lawmakers and the only group to have requested testimony from the PM. A PP official, Fernando Martínez Maillo, said about Adade that “everyone knows that it is really the Socialist Party [PSOE]. Citizens should know that when those lawyers ask questions, they will be following the dictates of the PSOE.”
This part of the trial is examining the 1999-2005 period, during which companies controlled by Francisco Correa spent €245,492 on the PP’s local campaigns in the outlying Madrid towns of Pozuelo de Alarcón and Majadahonda in 2003. The questions will presumably deal with these issues.
But previous statements by other former PP secretary generals suggest that the court may also allow more general questions, such as whether the conservative party kept secret accounts recording opaque donations and other unlawful transactions.
Media coverage of the historic event will match the trial for sheer scope
In a statement made in October, Correa (whose surname loosely translates as belt, or Gürtel in German, hence the case’s codename) said that at the height of his own power he spent more time at PP headquarters than inside his home. He also stated that he shared business bribes with former party treasurer Luis Bárcenas in exchange for help securing contracts from the environment and public works ministries.
Despite the expectation, sources at La Moncloa, the seat of government, said that the mood there is “calm and normal.” Rajoy spent the weekend with his family in Andalusia’s Doñana National Park, and on Wednesday he will predictably tell the court that he never had any power over the financing of election campaigns, and that he personally ordered the party to sever all ties with Correa as soon as he suspected wrongdoing by the latter.
Sources who are close to the PM also noted that sitting leaders have taken the witness stand in other parts of the world, most notably David Cameron and Michele Bachelet, and “neither the United Kingdom nor Chile sank into the sea as a result.”
English version by Susana Urra.