Just like Robin Hood, but the other way round


The clean-up after decades of systemic corruption in Spain has been slow as guilty parties from the worlds of local and national government, politics, business and banking resist, screaming and kicking, denying and lying, destroying evidence and covering their tracks, in an attempt to wriggle out of punishment.

At the time of Gürtel, José María Aznar’s Partido Popular (PP) was in power. Of his 2002 cabinet almost all have been indicted on corruption charges or implicated in one corruption scandal or another. In the words of the alternative Spanish national anthem sung by Quequé, Spain’s ruling class is ‘just like Robin Hood, but the other way round’.

Gürtel verdict

Spain’s High Court has sentenced 29 of the 37 defendants in the trial of the first period of the Gürtel conspiracy (1999-2005):

  • The ringleader, Francisco Correa, was jailed for 51 years and 11 months in prison
  • The former Secretary of Organization of the PP in Galicia, Pablo Crespo, got 37 years and 6 months
  • Ex-treasurer of the PP, Luis Bárcenas, 33 years and 4 months and a fine of more than 44 million euros [sic]
  • Bárcenas’ wife, Rosalia Iglesias: 15 years – the agent in the investment in ‘ultranationalist’ Spanish daily Libertad Digital
  • Correa’s wife, Carmen Rodríguez Quijano, 14 years and 8 months
  • Among the acquitted are the head of Orange Market, Álvaro Pérez ‘El Bigotes’, who pointed his finger straight at Rajoy

The sentences handed out to the 29 convicted total up to 351 years in prison. The High Court has also found Rajoy’s former minister, Ana Mato, to be civilly liable to the tune of 27,857 euros (spent on family holidays and events, such as childrens’ birthday celebrations) and the PP itself to fines of 111,864 euros for election expenses in Pozuelo and 133,628 euros for the same in Majadahonda. The trial lasted more than a year.

It was the first time a Spanish prime minister had appeared as a witness in a Spanish court and what a very uncooperative and unconvincing witness Mariano Rajoy was.  Rajoy was accused of lying to the court during his testimony for denying the existence of the slush fund and judges described his testimony – and that of Javier Arenas, Francisco Álvarez Cascos, Pío García Escudero and other top PP ministers, past and present – as ‘implausible’. Perhaps, the court would have been able to make more mud stick if Bárcenas’ computers had been handed over by PP headquarters instead of destroyed. Perhaps more will come out when the loose ends of the trial are tied up.

Although many feel that the PP has so far got off lightly, the party will appeal the lenient sentence and has responded by continuing to deny all knowledge. Following the script of PP’s leaked internal document, the defence argument goes like this:

  • Mariano Rajoy: it hurts, but they’re old cases, pre-2009, we’ve introduced legislation to combat these things that happen, the PP is much more than 10 or 15 isolated cases, it is a small minority of PP governments at any level where these lamentable things have happened and we hope don’t happen much in the future, we will do the possible, and impossible, to avoid such things happening in the future.
  • PP hardman Rafael ‘El Duro’ Hernando: the cases for which the party has been considered liable are from 2003 and are for illegal financing in two of the 8,300 municipalities where the party presented candidates (spot the tricks – the PP were not in power in all these municipalities and Gürtel is not the only corruption case the party has been involved in by a long chalk) and no party member was aware a crime was being committed so it is an exculpatory sentence for the PP, who have no criminal responsibility.

Hernando again wins the prize for the biggest … the most cheek, especially when you consider there is more to come from the second phase of the investigation, which includes the ‘Bárcenas papers’ and evidence of cash-filled envelopes allegedly being stuffed into top PP pockets in the now notorious secret ledgers, including the entries alongside the as yet unidentified ‘M.Rajoy‘.

Too often in Spain the excuse is that things happened a long time ago and would therefore be better forgotten. The law moves very slowly in Spain if the accused forms or has formed part of the government. The rule of law is a flexible rod. In fact, the Gürtel investigation did not get underway until 2009 and is only just now reaching its conclusion, nine years later.

It claimed its first victim in 2010, when investigating judge, Baltasar Garzón, was disqualified from practising law in Spain for eleven years for illegally authorising the recording of conversations between prisoners and counsel. In 2008, he had also started an inquiry into crimes against humanity by Franco’s Nationalist government and opened an even bigger Pandora’s box, full of the horrors that the 1977 amnesty law was designed to bury forever. Although acquitted of the charges relating to the latter investigation, it is thought to have had much to do with his prosecution and disqualification. It is unclear how the Gürtel verdict affects his situation.

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The fallout

The guilty verdicts have plunged the governing ‘conservative’ PP back into the mire of Spain’s historic and systemic corruption and presented the major parties supporting or opposing their minority government in Congress – ‘centre-left’ Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), ‘centre-right’ Ciudadanos and ‘far-left’ Podemos – with an opportunity to bring down this government and perhaps subject Spain’s long-suffering electorate to a third election in four years.

As leader of PSOE, Spain’s second force in parliament, Pedro Sánchez, was obviously best placed to present a motion of no confidence in the government, and did so last Friday, the day after the Gürtel verdict. An opportunity for beleaguered PSOE to reverse the decline of recent years could not be passed up. However, his proposal has met with an assortment of reactions and neither the success of the motion of no confidence nor subsequent elections are foregone conclusions. It quickly became open season on Sánchez though. ‘It’s a powergrab,’ cried the PP.

Ciudadanos, however, had other ideas. First they rejected the motion presented by Sánchez saying that Rajoy should dissolve parliament and call elections and that if he did not, it should be them that presented the motion. This is not possible according to the Constitution, which is embarrassing for the constitutionalist party par excellence. They bluffed that theirs was an alternative strategy and that they would support the motion as long as a neutral caretaker president led Spain to elections. They also warned against deals with regional nationalists in a ‘Frankenstein’ interim government.

The PP response to the no confidence vote was, of course, to fearmonger. They launched the hashtag #UnaMociónContraEspaña – A Motion Against Spain. Hernando was back with a blistering assault in Congress on all of Podemos’ MPs past misdemeanours, both real and imagined. To the media, he accused PSOE, Podemos and the independentists of trying to destabilise the country.

Fernando Martínez-Maíllo‘s accused Sánchez of wanting to reach power with the support of Podemos and ‘the heirs of terrorism that would break Spain’ – ERC, PDeCat and Bildu. Any deal with independentists, he said, would make Sánchez the biggest ‘traitor’ and ‘Judas’ in Spanish history. Defence minister, Mª Dolores de Cospedal, claimed that a change of government now would ‘endanger the economic recovery that was at last reaching all Spanish homes’. She urged PP’s other supposed ally in Congress, Ciudadanos, not to act as Sánchez’s crutch. In short, vote PP or it will mean the ‘lefties’ destroying the economy and the ‘indepes’ breaking up Spain.

If the motion prospers and we ever reach elections, Catalonia will remain centre stage in its role as Spain’s principal bogeyman. Pro-independence forces will continue to be demonised for votes as the main Madrid-based parties jostle for position in a race to show the strongest anti-Catalan will, a guaranteed vote winner in most of Spain.

However, it is impossible to say what will happen. The motion of no confidence may not prosper, elections may not be held and the PP may remain in power until the end of the legislature. We should not forget the traditionally short memories of Spanish voters and Mariano Rajoy’s normally successful waiting game to take advantage of that forgetfulness. The clever money seems to be on nothing changing, ever.


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