The winner takes it all?

How Spain's political elite is changing the rules to never lose again.
People hold a banner reading "Corruption" as a thousand people demonstrate against political corruption's cases in a street of eastern city Valencia on April 13, 2013. AFP PHOTO/ JOSE JORDAN (Photo credit should read JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Spain is home to an abundance of mind-blowing corruption cases. Consider, for example, the decade-long exchange of favors among wealthy businessman Francisco Correa and members of the ruling right-wing People’s Party. After a whistleblower’s evidence suggested that a certain group of companies had been receiving preferential treatment in the awarding of public contracts, deep investigations into party and private finances were launched, and revealed, among many things, €40 million of unclear origin hidden away in the Party Treasurer’s Swiss bank accounts. The involved crimes were estimated to have caused a money loss to public finances amounting to at least €120 million. 37 individuals, among them the Spanish minister of health, the former IMF director, businessmen, and party officials from regional governments and parliaments, were charged with crimes including bribery, fraud, money laundering, forgery and tax evasion.

Another case revolves around the “tarjetas black” (black credit cards). Beginning as early as 1996, Caja Madrid and Bankia handed out black credit cards free of spending limits or user identification data to the corporate chauffeurs of their executives, as well as government individuals. The drivers were meant to handle their passengers’ bills using these cards, and all expenses would be paid for by the banks. Between 2003 and 2012, at least 86 bankers, politicians, officials and trade union leaders went on a €15.2 million spending spree, at restaurants, hotels, and buying luxury items such as clothing or Apple electronics. Both Caja Madrid and Bankia were rescued by the state after the financial crisis. Ultimately, citizens paid for all of this excess.

The deeply rooted political corruption has – in many ways – been going on since the Franco dictatorship ended in 1975. Today’s biggest political party of Spain, the Partido Popular (People’s Party), referred to as PP, was founded by seven former fascist ministers shortly after the transition to democracy began. The political and economic elite that then emerged to control Spain is ruling to this day and seems to do its best to keep democracy out of its way.

After two inconclusive elections where no party reached a majority, the major center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) abstained from a confidence vote in the acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, giving his PP a second term of four years. The supposed liberal revolution did not gain enough traction to beat the effect of well-known faces and rhetoric on elderly voters, fake-news smear campaigns against the left, and a game with rules that the winner can modify in his favor. The governing bodies are still no less intransparent and this is likely to happen again, as media (above all, national television) continue to heavily cater to the powerful.

The head of the national television network RTVE, with control over daily operations, is in practice selected by the lower house of Spanish Congress for their political stance and party affiliation (until 2006, a Director General had de facto total control of the network). RTVE has also been accused of firing multiple reporters who criticized the PP’s policies, and its own journalists have called it a “propaganda instrument in the service of the government”.

An important way Spanish media have been serving the so-called Casta (“the caste”) was explained by Alfonso Armada, former El País reporter and since 2013 vice president of the Spanish section of Reporters Without Borders. “The press routinely twists the facts to fit the venue’s ideology,” he said. “The media themselves have helped spread the notion that there are no indisputable facts, just partial views of reality. As a result, what has taken root is the idea that, just like politicians, all media outlets lie.” Without known facts, voting becomes an emotional choice, driven by a televised narrative that can be twisted with lies and half-truths.

The People’s Party has proven to be relentless in silencing anyone voicing their concerns. With the so-called gag law of 2015, “Ley Mordaza”, officially Law of Citizen Security, the government took first steps towards infringing on the freedom of speech.

Since July 2015, the government gives high fines for “unauthorized protests” near official institutions, and to those who “disrupt public events”. Even using social media to call on people to protest is being fined under the new law, an attempt to suppress spontaneous protests. Fines also apply to showing a “lack of respect” to those in uniform and to peaceful protesting.

It would not be accurate to claim there is a lack of progress or uproar at all. Many of the country’s corrupted leaders have and will likely continue to be discovered, prosecuted, and sometimes, convicted. But a few politicians, and now especially Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, the Justice minister of Rajoy’s PP administration, are allowed to pardon fellow politicians “on humanitarian grounds.” When criticized, it has been called a “tradition” that had to be kept. 4,500 pardons were issued in the last 13 years, by leaders from both major parties.

As El País reported, “in the case of politicians and civil servants, a pardon can also serve to revoke a court’s decision to bar the person from public office”.As El País reported, “in the case of politicians and civil servants, a pardon can also serve to revoke a court’s decision to bar the person from public office”. In fact more than half of all-pardoning cases regarding financial crimes allowed their recipients to continue in their posts. Around 70 percent of the politicians who have been arraigned for corruption were subsequently re-elected in the most recent local elections.”

All these power-preserving efforts create fear. And it is precisely at this moment that Spanish citizens may not give in. They must fight back consistently, especially the young and educated who have enough time and energy for dealing critically with politics.

Right now it is the PP’s work, but the opposing PSOE leaders have shown surprisingly similar tendencies in past decades. The problem, many observers agree, is not just one of any single party, it is a systemic one where a seductive lack of transparency is too ingrained in Spain’s political institutions.

Young Spaniards have already reached surprising upsets with young parties and calls for anti-corruption measures, but it hasnt been enough and there is a lot more to do. Most of the impacted citizens are not even involved yet, but the right moment to take action has been here for years already.

Indeed there are a few weather-tested ways to solving such deep conflicts. Among them are good arguments, very publicly stated, as well as an intelligent discourse online with support from professional journalists – too public to shut down –, a common ground of documented facts to work from, and organizing big peaceful protests.

And ultimately, if not a risky sudden government overthrow, it is the gradual, consistent support of a different kind of political party that can bring a country hope, a change of rhetoric, and improvements.

Vegard Beyer

Vegard is a communication designer and short film director studying at Hochschule Niederrhein in Krefeld, Germany. He has worked on projects including social business, refugee communication in Germany and social commentary in art. His studies and travels feed his interests in social design, media theory, literature and cinema, international development and human rights. He can be reached at [email protected] or through LinkedIn.
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