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Popular Party fears electoral impact of growing list of scandals

New raid is only latest in series of corruption probes damaging image of Spain’s ruling party

Former Popular Party secretary general Ángel Acebes.
Former Popular Party secretary general Ángel Acebes. EFE

With municipal and regional polls, and then a general election, slated for next year, Spain’s ruling Popular Party (PP) fears that constant media coverage of a series of judicial investigations involving senior figures are inflicting damage that could harm its chances of reelection.

News on Monday that the Civil Guard had mounted a raid against a suspected bid-rigging scheme involving, among others, the PP’s former number two in the Madrid region, Francisco Granados, is sure to only further stoke concerns among party members, coming in the wake of a string of other scandals.

“This drip, drip, drip has to stop, we have to know what the charges are, and let’s face the consequences: whoever has to fall, so be it,” says one PP member of Congress, complaining about the slow pace of Spain’s justice system.

Last week, former deputy prime minister Rodrigo Rato temporarily suspended his PP membership until an investigation into alleged credit card abuse while he was chairman of Caja Madrid savings bank is resolved.

Meanwhile, Ángel Acebes, who occupied three ministerial positions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has become entangled in an ongoing investigation into secret party accounts that point to illegal financing and the payment of undeclared cash bonuses to top leaders between 1997 and 2008.

The investigation is based on handwritten accounts kept by former PP treasurer Luis Bárcenas who faces possible charges of money laundering and tax evasion. He is implicated in the Gürtel kickbacks-for-contracts scandal, which first broke in 2008. During the ongoing investigation into the corruption ring, it emerged that Bárcenas had a bank account in Switzerland containing as much as €22 million. The origin of that money remains unclear.

A week can be a very long time in politics…

- On October 20, former Caja Madrid president Rodrigo Rato asked PP secretary general María Dolores de Cospedal to be temporarily suspended from the party over an investigation into alleged credit card abuse during his tenure at the bank. The move was prompted by growing calls from within the party to stand down.

- On October 21, investigating magistrate Pablo Ruz called former PP secretary general Ángel Acebes to answer questions about money allegedly taken from a secret fund to buy shares in online media group Libertad Digital.

- On October 23, the same judge called the former mayor of Toledo to answer questions about an alleged bribe paid to an affiliate of the Sacyr construction firm.

- On October 27, the Civil Guard launched a major raid against politicians, municipal workers and construction firms suspected of involvement in a bid-rigging scheme. Those arrested as part of ongoing Operation Púnica include Francisco Granados, a former deputy premier of the Madrid region; the head of the provincial authority of León, Marcos Martínez Barazón; and the PP mayor of Valdemoro, José Carlos Boza Lechuga.

The investigation into the secret PP accounts kept by Barcenás is an offshoot of the larger Gürtel probe, which has affected many top PP officials. In August of last year, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was forced to explain to Congress his role in the Bárcenas affair.

The latest scandal to emerge involves politicians, municipal workers and construction firms suspected of involvement in a bid-rigging scheme that awarded €250 million in public contracts in the last two years. Along with Granados, who is already mixed up in the Gürtel probe, other PP members arrested include the head of the provincial authority of León, Marcos Martínez Barazón, and the mayor of the Madrid town of Valdemoro, José Carlos Boza Lechuga.

The combined impact of all these cases has further eroded public confidence in Spain’s politicians, with both the PP and the opposition Socialists having been shown to have committed financial irregularities over the last three decades.

The PP’s approach throughout the Gürtel scandal has been to say as little as possible, and allow Bárcenas to take most of the heat. But now the spotlight has returned to the party’s leadership: Acebes was PP secretary general between 2004 and 2008. The party will be hoping that Acebes will be removed from the investigation once he has been questioned.

Last week the PP released a brief statement reiterating its denial that party members ever received cash payments, despite the investigation’s acceptance that they were made. At the same time, the statement said it would “respect the courts’ decisions.”

Senior party figures say the Gürtel affair is unlikely to cause it any more damage, and that the Caja Madrid case is of greater concern now. The scandal has already prompted infighting and a crossfire of accusations. Former prime minister José María Aznar appointed Rato’s predecessor, Miguel Blesa, while Rato was named chairman by current PM Mariano Rajoy. The Rajoy camp has sought to lay the blame at the door of the previous PP administration, while Aznar’s supporters within the party point out that Rajoy appointed Acebes and also protected Bárcenas.

PP figures say Gürtel is unlikely to cause more damage and that the Caja Madrid case is of greater concern

Unlike the Socialist Party, which faces an election challenge from the recently formed Podemos group, and to a lesser extent, the United Left coalition, the PP has no competition on the right of the political spectrum. But senior officials say that supporters may simply choose not to vote in next year’s polls.

Meanwhile, Rajoy is deploying his classic strategy of saying nothing, and left Congress on the day the news broke last week that Acebes had been named an official suspect, without making any comment to the melee of journalists waiting for him.

How much worse the latest scandal will make things for the PP remains to seen. The party has already said it will suspend the membership of those caught up in the bid-rigging case and demand they resign their posts. PP Congressional speaker Jesús Posada expressed his “surprise” at the investigation but nevertheless defended his colleagues to the hilt when asked whether he thought Spain had a corrupt political class. “The majority of party members are decent people, dedicated to their work and if there is a minority who behave illegally, the citizens think they are the majority,” he said.