Mariano Rajoy said at the weekend that he would be the first to act if he were to discover any illicit activity within his Popular Party (PP). He made no comment on the Swiss bank accounts of the party’s former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, nor on the suspicions that the latter had been running an illegal-payment system to the benefit of leading PP figures. The prime minister was content to couch his response in phrases such as “as far as I am aware” while outwardly welcoming any eventual judicial proceedings related to the Bárcenas affair. What was required was that the PP open an internal investigation into Luis Bárcenas’ dealings while manager and later treasurer of the party, as well as a general revision of PP accounts. It fell to the party’s secretary general, María Dolores de Cospedal, to announce such a probe.
The opening of an internal inquiry, and Rajoy’s statement that he will “not hesitate” to take action should any wrongdoing be proven, suggests the prime minister has taken onboard the seriousness of the case; his own credibility and political future are at stake. The claims coming from Bárcenas’ circle are either true or false. What is not an option is to take refuge in the idea that this is a case of individual responsibility or merely not knowing what went on. How does the ruling party expect the country to trust in its management of a deep economic crisis if it has not realized the full extent of a corruption scandal within its own headquarters?
Rajoy must establish where political responsibility for the Bárcenas affair lies, and the party must introduce the necessary changes in order to guarantee transparency and legality in the PP’s finances. Having taken over as president of the PP in 2004 after spending one year in the post of secretary general, Rajoy worked alongside Bárcenas amid the party’s leadership for six years. The now former senator rose from party manager to treasurer in 2008 before resigning in 2009 after 28 years of PP membership. This is too long a period for nobody to have realized that he had amassed a fortune, which was completely out of step with his official salary and was kept hidden from the Spanish tax authorities.
The government must clarify if Bárcenas was indeed able to take advantage of the fiscal amnesty it set up last year. The ex-treasurer’s lawyers say their client did so while the Finance Ministry took the unusual step of denying that this was the case, in so doing risking a violation of the laws regarding the confidentiality of such information. The minister, Cristóbal Montoro, must now come out and explain the tax-amnesty particulars, from top to bottom.
The truth is the Bárcenas affair is only one of many corruption cases the PP now faces, with the conservative party being well represented alongside Socialists and Catalan nationalists among a list of some 200 politicians implicated in graft or tax-fraud inquiries. Stern measures are required to stem this flow of corrupt behavior: professional scrutiny of the parties’ accounts; the immediate publication of the funds they receive (public and private); and an obligation to audit their accounts in the first few weeks after each financial year, and not several years later as is currently the norm at the Court of Auditors. If this institution is unable to respond to this necessity due to a lack of resources, private auditors must be brought in.
Whatever has to be done will be worth it if we are not to accept that Spain’s democratic system should become a victim of populist opportunism, which is a genuine threat as long as the institutionalized parties fail to conduct their dealings with far greater rigor.