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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Is Spain as corrupt as it was a decade ago?

Corruption cases are resurfacing in Spain after a number of years when they weren't major news. The Local looks into the stats, the headlines, and main culprits to ask: is Spain as corrupt as it was a decade ago, and are things getting worse?

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Former king Juan Carlos’s dodgy dealings, Andalusia’s ERE corruption case and the Gurtel PP scandal have all continued to erode the trust Spaniards have in politicians and the monarchy. Photo: Oscar Del Pozo, Cristina Quicler, Fernando Alvarado/AFP

In January 2022, it emerged that Spain had dropped in the global ranking of the 2021 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) compiled by NGO Transparency International.

It dropped two places since 2020, to 34th internationally, and has actually fallen four places, from 30th, in less than three years. Its new position places it 14th among the 27 European Union member states, and in the bottom three of Europe’s biggest economies: only Italy and Poland (tied for 42nd place) finished behind Spain.

But what explains Spain’s steady decline? Is there anything that can explain the drop, have other countries cleaned up their act, or is Spain really becoming more corrupt? 

The rankings

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) ranks 180 countries and territories around the world by their perceived levels of public sector corruption. Each is given a corruption score on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).

Drawing on information sourced from survey data carried out by globally respected institutions such as the World Bank, the index considers several factors or indicators of bribery, studying how susceptible public institutions are perceived to be to bribery, embezzlement, officials who use public office for personal gain, institutions preventing anti-corruption and enforcement regulations, bureaucratisation and nepotism, among others.

One key takeaway from the 2021 Index is that corruption levels are stagnant worldwide, with “little or no progress” made in 86 percent of the countries evaluated in the index over the last ten years.

​​At the top of the perception list are Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, countries that, according to the Democracy Index, are also the top for civil liberties in the world. The countries who received the lowest scores, 11, 13, and 13, respectively, were Somalia, Syria and South Sudan.

Transparency International suggests that the world’s larger economies – such as Spain’s, which is among the top 15 in the world – should never receive a CPI score of below 70, especially if it wants to maintain its respect and competitiveness on the international scene. Yet in the 2021 CPI Spain received a 61/100, not only lower than the previous year but a score that places it below countries such as Chile, Uruguay, Lithuania, Estonia, the Bahamas, and Barbados.

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Map showing Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for 2021

Looking back

Using data available from past CPI studies, it becomes clear that Spain’s recent slip in the league table is not an anomaly but part of a longer-term trend. In 2000, Spain sat in 20th place with a score of 70 (or a 7.0, as the CPI was done on a 1-10 scale back then), and was neck and neck with countries such as France, Ireland, and Israel. Yet by 2005 it had slipped to 23rd place, albeit with the CPI score holding firm at around 70.

However, by 2010 Spain had dropped to 30th position, and its CPI score had dropped dramatically by 9 points to 61 (6.1 on the old scale). By 2015 the position had worsened, sinking to a score of 58 and flanked by Lithuania and Latvia, and in 2018 Spain ranked 41st in the world albeit with an unchanged CPI score of 58. 

It seems clear that Spain’s CPI score had been in steady decline for the last two decades. Since the year 2000, the perception Spaniards have of their public institutions and actors – whether it be political parties and politicians, the police force, public administrations, and local ayuntamientos – and their susceptibility to corruption has worsened.

But the statistic that sticks out in the CPI data is the sudden drop in trust in public institutions from 2005 to 2010. Was there something specific that could explain such a change in public opinion?

Corruption in the news

The infamous Gürtel case is perhaps one famous corruption case that could explain both the sudden drop in public trust between 2005 and 2010, and the steady decline in more recent years. The Gürtel case, a case that engulfed right-wing party PP in accusations of money laundering, tax evasion, and bribery, came to light in 2009 but the main suspects were not put on trial, or even publicly named in some cases, until late-2016, both periods of time when Spain’s CPI score dropped.

The corrupt activities involved party funding and the awarding of contracts by local and regional governments in Valencia and Madrid, among others. Judges estimated the loss to public finances was a staggering €120,000,000.

Operation Kitchen has dominated the headlines in more recent years, and could also be a contributing factor in Spain’s falling position in the CPI. It also follows on and is connected to the Gürtel case, neatly tying together over a decade of corruption in PP.

Known as “Operación Kitchen” because the code name of the alleged informant was ‘the cook’, the informant worked as a driver for the former treasurer of the Popular Party (PP), Luis Bárcenas, who in May 2018 was sentenced to 33 years in jail for his role in a kickbacks scheme which financed the party known as, you guessed it, the Gürtel case.  

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Former PP treasurer Luis Barcenas in the National Court near Madrid in February 2021, on the first day of a new trial probing an illegal funding system run by the conservative party. (Photo by Juan Carlos Hidalgo / POOL / AFP)

 

The ruling led to the ousting of PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy in a confidence vote in parliament several days later. Public prosecutors allege the driver received €2,000 ($2,370) per month, as well as the promise of a job in the police force, in exchange for obtaining information regarding where “Bárcenas and his wife hide compromising documents” about the PP and its senior leaders.

The probe into “Operation Kitchen” is one of several which have been opened based on searches carried out following the arrest of José Manuel Villarejo, a former police commissioner who for years secretly recorded conversations with top political and economic figures to be able to smear them.

Of course, you can’t talk about corruption in Spain without talking about its royal family. Juan Carlos I, the now exiled former King of Spain (through personal choice), had a list of alleged corruption charges longer than a Spanish waiter’s order pad on a Saturday night: the Saudi rail payoffs, and money hidden in Swiss bank accounts; the mystery credit cards paid off by Mexican businessmen; the €10 million found in a Jersey bank account and, finally, his goat hunting trip with the President of Kazakhstan in which Juan Carlos left with armfuls of briefcases containing over €5 million in cash.

In March 2022, Spanish prosecutors dropped all investigations into his finances.

People hold banners reading “Nobody is better than anyone else” during a demonstration against the alleged corrupted monarchy in Madrid on July 25, 2020. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

But corruption in Spain not only exists at the elite level; although the upper echelons of Spanish society – government, the royal family – have been tarnished by allegations of corruption, perhaps it is the perceived corruption of local and regional institutions that contribute to Spain’s falling CPI score.

Small town corruption is nothing new. In January 2022, a councilwoman in the tiny Alicante province beach town of Santa Pola was arrested on suspicion of taking up to €40,000 in bribes over several years, and handing out catering contracts for money and favours.

The ongoing environmental scandal at Murcia’s Mar Menor has also been stained by corruption allegations. Former Minister of Agriculture in the region, Antonio Cerdá, is facing up to six years in prison for fraud and embezzlement and his role in the pollution of Murcia’s Mar Menor lagoon.

Police forces across Spain are no better, it seems. As the Catalan Generalitat investigates several cases of corrupt Mossos in its police force, port authorities and Guardia Civil agents across Spain, including Catalonia and Algeciras in Andalusia, have been arrested for taking bribes to turn blind eyes to drug trafficking. 

Even during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, local mayors across Spain and its territories were caught out using their position and influence to queue-jump and get vaccinations before vulnerable groups.

Looking ahead

Perhaps the combination of this low-level corruption, and the slow-term eroding effect it has on public trust in institutions, with the more high-profile national cases that envelop kings and politicians explains Spain’s steady decline in the CPI score.

Spain’s upcoming 2022 CPI rankings may be very telling following the more recent news that Spain’s Supreme Court has upheld jail convictions for two former Socialist leaders in Andalusia involved in the long-running ERE corruption scandal, a decision Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has actually criticised.

READ MORE: Why is Spain’s PM defending politicians charged with corruption?

And Catalonia, despite the separatist ambitions of many of its politicians, appears no different from the rest of Spain in terms of political recent corruption, as the latest graft charges against the speaker of the Catalan Parliament Laura Borràs suggest.

Social media undoubtedly plays a major role in influencing public opinion, as it provides Spaniards with minute by minute, rolling twenty-four hour news coverage of every misdeed anyone in public life does that they didn’t have in the past.

Judging by the CPI data available, it does seem that public opinion in Spain is swayed by such events and coverage.

The noticeable drops in public trust in institutions between 2005-2010, and again around 2018, mirror major national scandals.

Perhaps Spain isn’t necessarily headed on the downward trajectory the figures would suggest, and it isn’t set to tumble further down the corruption league tables.

In fact, judging by the 2021 CPI rankings, Spain is on a downward trend.

A multitude of factors could contribute to the worsening public perception of corruption in Spain: greed, social media, a constant news cycle, small town politics, pay-offs, bungs, bribes, new major national scandals, more dirt on exiled former kings.

If Spain is to fully emerge more economically secure from the pandemic and the current inflation crisis, rekindle the trust between the public and its institutions, as well as live up to its position as one of Europe’s major players, it better hope that its culture of political corruption dies off soon.

Could a new generation of young and conscientious politicians be the solution?

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CATALONIA

No regrets, says Catalan ex-minister on referendum anniversary

Five years after the failed secession push in Catalonia which landed him in jail, Oriol Junqueras remains convinced that defying Spain with a banned independence referendum was the right move.

No regrets, says Catalan ex-minister on referendum anniversary

But the former deputy head of the region says the separatist camp needs to rally more support if its dream of an independent Catalan state is to one day become a reality.

“We did what we had to do,” the professor-turned-politician said during an interview with AFP when asked about the failed secession drive that came to a head in October 2017.

“I am deeply proud of all that we have done, of our commitment, of having been able to convene, organise and hold a referendum on self-determination,” the 53-year-old added.

Despite being banned by the Spanish courts, the October 1, 2017 referendum organised by Catalonia’s separatist government went ahead but descended into chaos as police moved in to stop it, sparking confrontations marred by violence.

Based on the results of this vote — which were never independently corroborated — the Catalan parliament declared independence on October 27.

Spanish authorities responded by sacking the Catalan government and pressed charges against the region’s leaders who either fled abroad or were jailed like Junqueras.

Declining support

Today the separatist movement is deeply divided over the path forward and Catalonia’s ruling pro-independence coalition is on the point of collapse.

While Junqueras’s ERC party favours dialogue with Madrid, its junior coalition partners, the JxC of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has taken a more confrontational approach.

Despite passions running high over independence, the region itself also remains divided, with only 41 percent in favour of separation while 52 percent want to remain in Spain, the latest survey suggested.

In an October 2017 poll, support for independence in the wealthy northeastern region of Spain stood at 49 percent.

“What we must do today, is be democratically stronger” in the face of the “repressive” Spanish state, said Junqueras, a lifelong supporter of independence and father-of-two who also served as Catalonia’s economy minister.

The “main mistake” of the separatist camp in 2017 was that it did not “talk more with people, convince more people” to back the cause, he added.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government last year pardoned Junqueras and eight other Catalan separatist leaders who were serving lengthy jail terms for their roles in the ill-fated independence bid.

Junqueras was in 2019 sentenced to 13 years behind bars, the longest term among the nine pardoned leaders. He spent over three years in prison before his pardon.

As Catalonia’s former vice president Junqueras was convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds after the unauthorised 2017 referendum which led to Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

‘Made us stronger’

Puigdemont, who was the head of Catalonia’s government at the time of the referendum, evaded arrest by fleeing to Belgium after Catalonia’s short-lived declaration of independence.

“I was convinced that my obligation was to be as close as possible to my citizens, at the same time I understand perfectly that other people opted for exile,” Junqueras said.

“The fact that we have been in jail has only made us stronger in every way,” he added.

“It has also opened many doors in the international community that were more difficult to open previously, so in this sense the time in prison has also been a very profitable investment.”

He cited as an example an August finding from the UN’s Human Rights Committee which concluded Spain had violated the political rights of Catalan politicians including Junqueras.

The committee found that Spain violated their rights when they were suspended from office before having been convicted.

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