Behind the headlines: Why Spain’s justice minister is facing calls to resign

Spain's justice minister faced calls to resign on Tuesday after audio recordings emerged of her having lunch nearly a decade ago with a retired police chief under investigation for money laundering.

Behind the headlines: Why Spain's justice minister is facing calls to resign
Justice Minister Dolores Delgado has had a difficult week. Photo: AFP

She was one of the new wave of women that made Pedro Sanchez’s government the ‘most feminist’ Spain had ever had, after the Socialist PM ousted Mariano Rajoy and seized power in June.

READ MORE: This is Spain's new cabinet

Dolores Delgado, 55, forged a successful career as a public prosecutor at Spain’s National Court, taking on high-profile drug cases before specialising in jihadist terrorism in the wake of the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

She joined Sanchez’s female-dominated cabinet as Justice Minster, without question that she was the right woman for the job.

Why the fuss?

But Delgado has found herself in the headlines this week for all the wrong reasons.

It began last week, when a report in El Confidencial newspaper suggested she had links to José Villarejo, a disgraced former police chief awaiting trial for corruption and money laundering.  

The newspaper alleged that he was in the pocket of a Spanish citizen fighting extradition to Guatemala and had approached Delgado, who was then a prosecutor at Spain Audencia Nacional, to help him.

Delgado’s denial was swift. She “did not have any kind of relationship” with the police chief, a statement that was then softened with the explanation that she had “no professional” links to him.

What came next was leaked audio, apparently dating from 2009, that appeared to show Villarejo and Delgado discussing judicial issues interspersed with personal chat and some lewd jokes about colleagues.

Most embarrassing was Delgado appearing to refer to then magistrate, now Interior Minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, as a “faggot”.

He made a public show of not caring and was pictured hugging Delgado outside Congress the day after the video went viral.

“You all know that the important thing is not words, it’s deeds,” he said when asked about the incident. “This is a unified government and we always do our best to ensure diversity and equality.”

Delgado herself now admits to having met Villarejo – “maybe three times in the 30 years I was a public prosecutor” – and insists the audio recordings have been manipulated.

“I am sorry if I appear angry. But I am. Because I am not going to allow anyone to question my principles and my honesty,” she added.   

Calls to resign

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has led the calls for Delgado’s resignation for her association with a “gutter cop”.

“it is not acceptable that there are ministers who are friends with people like Villarejo,” he said in a speech to parliament.

“Anyone who meets in a friendly way with a character of the gutter, of garbage…should stay away from political life,” he added.   

The conservative Popular Party, who were toppled after the party became embroiled in a series of corruption scandals, are also baying for blood.

“I can't understand how you can still be in your post, where you are doing enormous damage to Spanish justice and enormous damage to our country,” said conservative deputy Maria Jesus Bonilla.

“These recordings leave you in a very bad position not just as a person but also as a minister.”

Rafael Hernando, labelled the justice minister a “zombie”, saying: “You are guilty, stop filling our democracy with opprobrium and go.”

Support from PM

But support from Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has been unequivocal. He insisted his government would not accept “blackmail from anybody”. 

 “The political agenda will not be decided by someone who is crooked,” he said, referencing Villarejo, in a statement issued from New York where he was visiting the UN.

He will be very keen to ride out this latest scandal which comes in the wake of two minister resignations since he came to power in June.

Spain's socialist administration has already lost two of its ministers since coming to power in June.

The first to go was Culture and Sports minister Maxim Huerta, who was forced to step down after only a week after it emerged she had been heavily fined for tax offences.

And earlier this month health minister Carmen Monton resigned amid allegations over irregularities in her educational qualifications.

Sanchez himself has had to fend off allegations of plagiarism over his own degree.

The whiff of scandal already looks set to drift away from Delgado and settle instead over yet another minister in the cabinet.

Science minister and former astronaut Pedro Duque was forced on Thursday to defend himself against allegations he avoided taxes.


Ideological battle over abortion as Spain vote looms

A controversial anti-abortion proposal by the far-right Vox party has sparked heated debate in a key election year for Spain, with its left-wing government raising the alarm about extremist agendas.

Ideological battle over abortion as Spain vote looms

Last week, a Vox official in the northern region of Castilla y León, which is co-run by the right and far right, said doctors would have to offer women seeking an abortion the option of hearing the heartbeat of the foetus.

The measure is similar to that adopted last year by the far-right government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, which requires pregnant women to listen to the foetus’ “vital functions’ before having an abortion.

The aim was “to promote childbirth and support families”, said the region’s deputy head Juan Garcia-Gallardo, a member of Vox which, like other parties of its ilk, has put a lot of focus on this ideologically charged issue.

READ ALSO: Spain’s Castilla y León to introduce measures to prevent abortions

Spain, a European leader when it comes to women’s rights, decriminalised abortion in 1985 and in 2010 it passed a law that allows women to opt freely for abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy in most cases.

A government bill which aims to guarantee access to the procedure at public hospitals is currently making its way through parliament.

‘Threat is very real’

Vox in 2022 entered a regional government for the first time since it was founded in 2013 when it became the junior partner in a coalition with the conservative Popular Party (PP) in Castilla y León.

The experiment in the region close to Madrid is being closely watched: polls suggest the PP would win a general election expected the end of the year but would need the support of Vox to govern.

Before that, Spain will vote in May in regional and local elections.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez used his address at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday to warn of the threat posed by the far-right, in what was seen as a reference to Castilla y León.

“We have to prevent these political forces from reaching the institutions… because the threat is very real, especially in those countries where far-right forces have the support of mainstream conservative parties,” he said.

He accused Moscow of using far-right parties to sow division in Europe, adding: “We will fight them with the same determination and conviction that the Ukrainians are fighting Russian forces.”

Sánchez’s executive has sent two notices to the regional government of Castilla y León reminding it that it does not have the authority to alter the abortion law.

READ ALSO: What are Spain’s abortion laws for foreign residents and visitors?

‘Drive a wedge’

Meanwhile, the main opposition PP has tried to distance itself from the controversy. It said the measure, which was first put forward by Garcia-Gallardo, will never come into force.

During a TV interview on Tuesday, PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo said: “No woman who wants to voluntarily interrupt her pregnancy according to the law will be coerced anywhere where the PP governs.”

Feijóo, who has pushed the PP to the centre since becoming leader of the party in April, did not hide his discomfort with Vox, which he said was “clearly mistaken”.

He said the far-right party had sparked a controversy that “clearly” benefitted Sánchez’s government, which had “a lot of problems”.

The abortion row has overshadowed other disputes troubling the government. They include a row sparked by a flagship law against sexual violence that toughened penalties for rape but eased sentences for other sexual crimes. This has set some convicts free after their jail terms were reduced.

Antonio Barroso, of political consultancy Teneo, said Vox was “trying to drive a wedge within the PP by pushing for initiatives that pull the party away from the centre”.

Controversies over issues like abortion could help Sánchez “to mobilise the left-wing electorate by capitalising on their potential fears of a PP-Vox government”, he added in a research note.