Anger over a long list of corruption scandals implicating bankers, politicians and even members of the royal family is on the rise in recession-hit Spain, putting the spotlight on the failure of the country’s democracy to tackle the issue.
At demonstrations against government austerity measures, chants against alleged shady deals by Spain’s elite are as common as those venting anger at tax hikes and spending cuts to social services and public workers’ pay.
Around 200-300 elected officials out of more than 50,000 in the country are currently implicated in corruption cases in regions governed both by both the left and the right, said the head of the Spanish branch of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, Jesus Lizcano.
“While small, it is a significant percentage and is a bit alarming and calls for an urgent response on the part of political parties,” he said.
With taxpayers reeling under austerity measures and a record unemployment rate of 26 percent, many feel that “the political class is not able to resolve the economic crisis, that it is useless, and that they protect each other”, said University of Santiago de Compostela political science professor Anton Losada.
The latest corruption scandal to make headlines involves Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s centre-right Popular Party, whose popularity has plunged since it won a November 2011 election in a landslide.
Daily newspaper El Mundo reported on January 18 that former Popular Party treasurer Luis Barcenas distributed envelopes containing thousands of euros to party officials on top of their declared salaries.
It said the money came from commissions collected from construction firms, insurance companies and anonymous donors.
Top Popular Party officials have strongly denied any involvement in the affair and have kept their distance from Barcenas, who reportedly had up to 22 million euros ($29 million) in Swiss bank accounts until 2009.
Hundreds of people protested, chanting “thieves” and “shame”, near the headquarters of the Popular Party in central Madrid on the day El Mundo published its allegations against Barcenas.
Corruption scandals have even hurt the popularity of King Juan Carlos after one implicated a member of his family.
His son-in-law Inaki Urdangarin was accused last year of embezzling public money paid by regional governments to a charitable organisation based in Mallorca which he chaired from 2004 to 2006.
“During the past three weeks people have been very, very, very angry, there has been a growing social alarm and it is very important that politicians take this issue seriously,” said Lizcano.
The corruption scandals have shaken Spaniards’ faith in politicians nearly four decades after the death of dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975 paved the way for the country’s return to democracy.
Three in four Spaniards think political corruption is rising in the country and that politicians get better treatment in the courts than regular citizens, according to a poll published in conservative newspaper ABC on January 20.
Rajoy has ordered an internal investigation into the finances of the party and has vowed to take action if any wrongdoing is uncovered.
Last year his government vowed to table a law on political transparency and earlier this month it proposed an anti-corruption pact with other parties.
After Franco’s death the country’s 17 autonomous communities were given broad powers with little oversight over their finances, which are largely blamed for the country’s bloated public deficit.
“There is an urgent need for parties to publish their accounts and their sources of financing,” as in other European nations, said Lizcano.
He said there is too much involvement by politicians in institutions such as the courts and regional savings banks.
Popular anger was fuelled this month when Spanish telecom giant Telefonica hired Rodrigo Rato, a former head of the International Monetary Fund, as an advisor just weeks after he appeared in court in a fraud case involving bailout-out bank Bankia, which he once headed.
Lizcano has little faith that the government will follow through on its vow to step up the fight against corruption.
“I am sceptical but I hope I am wrong,” he said.