Spain’s latest scandal: water under the bridge?

By Luis Fernando Medina Sierra
19 May 2017
Spain Spain
As the Spanish right faces corruption allegations, the left fails to offer a serious alternative
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Any assessment of the ‘state of the left’ in Spain these days must start with a look at the ‘state for the right’. The latest developments confirm a pattern that has become increasingly clear: the rightwing Partido Popular (PP) has been using the state, especially regional administrations where it has been hegemonic, as a source of irregular funding. The headline-grabbing scandal of the past few weeks is, actually, not the first. It is particularly noteworthy because it refers to the regional government of Madrid, the country’s capital, but something similar has already occurred in other regions, chief among them Valencia.

Precedents aside, the allegations are shocking. Ignacio González, a former president of Madrid’s regional government is now in prison facing charges as part of a scheme to funnel money, to the tune of tens of millions of euros, from the public water utility company (Canal Isabel II) into shell firms set up in South America. But things acquire yet another dimension against the backdrop of the already years-long case known as the ‘Bárcenas Papers’, a trove of documents from the PP’s former treasurer that exposes, to keep with the hydraulic imagery, a veritable underground irrigation system of party funding that has been operating for decades violating the country’s regulations on the matter.

Spain’s unemployment rate is still alarmingly high but the economic crisis does not lend itself to a clean narrative. Even if the present author disagrees with it, a case can be made that the PP has handled it correctly and there is no question that a sizable group of the Spanish electorate believes so. But there is no happy narrative for corruption. In the jargon of political scientists, it is a ‘valence issue’, one where all voters agree and, as things stand now, it is one where the PP is clearly on the losing side. So, with the government presiding over hard economic times, with families still tightening their belts, while the ruling party’s politicians are lining their pockets in all sorts of sleazy deals, you would be entitled to think that the opposition is ready to come back roaring.

Or you could learn about Spain. As it happens, the opposition is in serious disarray, unable to take advantage of the situation. Recently, the upstart leftwing party Podemos announced its intention to call for a vote of no-confidence against the government. The Socialist party was livid.

This is not entirely surprising. When it comes to no-confidence votes, Spain’s constitution prescribes a “constructive veto”. That is, to prevail the opposition needs to propose an alternative government. As the saying goes, you can’t beat somebody with nobody. But that’s exactly the problem right now. Nobody can take charge of the no-confidence vote. Dislodging the PP requires a coalition of some form and all the options are unruly. Podemos and the Socialists, even if they could get together, would still need parliamentary votes from either Ciudadanos (a young self-styled liberal party that so far has not found a better way to back up its ‘good-government’ rhetoric than giving parliamentary support to the PP), or an assortment of regional nationalist parties.

To make matters worse, there’s nobody picking up the phone right now at the Socialist party’s headquarters. The party is itself undergoing a process of internal primaries to choose its new leadership. This explains the Socialists’ irate reaction to Podemos’ no-confidence vote. From their point of view, Podemos went ahead unilaterally with a proposal that can only work if part of a cross-party negotiation, as a calculated attempt to embarrass them, more than actually bringing down the PP.

Probably. Then again, the Socialists have done much to make themselves subject to embarrassment. For starters, as a party with a long history in government, especially with airtight hegemonies in the South, it is not exactly squeaky clean when it comes to corruption. These days the Socialists’ past indiscretions seem small beer compared to the PP’s scandals but politics is rarely fair. Then there is a deeper issue. After decades being one of the country’s major parties and one of the bulwarks of the ‘Transition’ (from dictatorship to democracy), the Socialist party has become part of the established order that is now creaking. It presided over the onset of the current crisis and helped shaped the policy consensus that set the stage for it in the preceding decades. The primary season is a chance for the party to refashion itself as an opposition firebrand, as a party ready to shake things up, to reconnect with its old glorious image. Stranger things have happened but the chances for this are not great. The leadership contest has not been the kind of energising, inspiring spectacle that launches great struggles but rather an affaire full of intrigue, pitting a decidedly ‘old guard’ candidate with all the baggage it implies (Susana Díaz) against a rather callow, accidental former party leader (Pedro Sánchez) who has yet to craft for himself a clear image but that has come to be seen as the best chance for a break with the past.

Visitors to Madrid often can enjoy, a short drive away, the spectacle of Segovia’s Roman aqueduct, an engineering feat of more than 2000 years. Probably some funds were embezzled back then building such an enormous water utility. At times of uncertainty like this one, when ‘the old is dead and the new isn’t yet born’, it is a bit comforting to know that some things never change.

Image credit: Sergey Dzyuba/