Who guards the guardians?
For many people in the UK, the fall of Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on 1 June came as a surprise, but the Parliamentary Vote of No Confidence which gave rise to Rajoy’s demise was part of an ongoing corruption scandal known as the Gurtel case.
Regrettably, this had been in the background of Spanish political life for more than a decade. Cutting a long and sordid story short, various members of Rajoy’s right-wing political party, the Partido Popular (“PP”), had been investigated by the police for links with individuals in the business community who were unscrupulous to the point of criminality, and there were accusations of fraud, money-laundering, tax-evasion and kick-backs, some of which related to the award of public sector contracts. All of this culminated in a large number of successful prosecutions towards the end of last month, and many of the of key players received hefty sentences, including Luis Bárcenas, a former treasurer of that political party, and close ally of Rajoy, who was sentenced to 33 years in prison. The outcome of these trials effectively made the then Prime Minister’s position untenable, and when Pedro Sanchez, the Socialist party leader, instigated a parliamentary vote of no confidence, the house of cards inevitably came tumbling down.
Arguably, the departure of Rajoy reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of the mechanisms for bringing politicians to account in a liberal democratic system. It is true that the police, judiciary and press all played their part in bringing the corruption to light, and ensuring that it was investigated and dealt with. In addition, a significant number of ordinary citizens made their voices heard, taking to the streets and social media to express their outrage. Against this backdrop, a vote in Parliament to determine whether the Prime Minister still commanded the support of the legislature was an expected development, and the removal of a politician and party from power when they had failed to distance themselves sufficiently from corruption was, on one level, a textbook outcome.
Nevertheless, the real world does not function along the clear bright-lines set out in teaching aids. As a starting point, most citizens would agree that endemic corruption in a nation’s political life is a serious evil which needs to be rooted out, and it has been estimated that the Spanish public purse has lost hundreds of millions of euros, money which was siphoned off for the private pleasure of the rich and powerful, and away from the general pot. Moreover, as much of this took place during the time referred to in Spanish as the crisis, when the economy was in dire straits and many citizens were suffering acute hardship, the taste left behind is all the more bitter. The magnitude and seriousness of what happened cannot and should not be glossed over.
However, in assessing the parliamentary response to the recent court’s judgment, it is important to be realistic about these recent events. At the risk of stating the obvious, the representatives who voted out Rajoy all had their own agendas, many of which were more complicated than an unalloyed, noble desire to clean up Spanish public life. Pedro Sanchez is now the Prime Minister of Spain, and it is far from clear clear how strong a democratic mandate Sanchez actually has, or whether his administration will be cohesive enough to function. The parliamentary coalition backing him has been described as a ‘rainbow’, but also less flatteringly as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’.
The new socialist Prime Minister’s ability to govern is dependent upon a motley collection of factions, all of which have their own aims, and particularly striking was the participation of the Catalan pro-independence parties in the vote of no confidence. This raises two issues: Firstly, there is the political question of whether they will be prepared to offer support, or whether they will make it contingent upon Sanchez agreeing to further their independence agenda in ways which either he or a critical mass of his allies will not be able to take on board. Secondly, there is the apparent hypocrisy of parties being prepared to condemn members of the PP for misusing public funds, whilst defending politicians who blatantly breached the Rule of Law, and were prepared to ignore the will of more than fifty per cent of their fellow citizens.
Of course, the whole volatile situation in Catalonia will, in and of itself, be a serious challenge for Sanchez to manage. After months of impasse and wrangling, both within the regional Parliament (where the balance of power between separatists and unionists teeters on a knife-edge), and externally between the Catalan Parliament and central authorities, a new regional Government has now finally been appointed and direct rule from Madrid has been suspended on 2nd June at last. Unfortunately, the regional President in question, Joaquim Torra, has proclaimed himself to be standing in for the fugitive Puigdemont, who chose to flee the jurisdiction rather than face criminal charges for acting beyond his powers. In Torra’s eyes, Puigdemont is a refugee and his former colleagues are political prisoners, and he has expressed his unshakeable determination to create a new Catalonian State. When push came to shove, Sanchez supported Rajoy in imposing direct rule from Madrid. Being realistic, it is difficult to imagine that Torra’s allies in the Parliament in Madrid are whole-heartedly enthusiastic about the new Sanchez administration, and their support to the vote of confidence was clearly more driven by their sheer rejection of Rajoy’s leadership.
All in all, with so many complex and mixed motivations flying around, it is legitimate to ask whether ousting Rajoy was really about cleaning up public life, or simply a chance to capitalise on a political opportunity. Or was it in fact a mixture of the two? Presumably, for every parliamentarian who voted against the Prime Minister, the balance of the answer will be slightly different. The reality is that the men and women driving the engine of parliamentary accountability are not neutral, apolitical white-knights, and this element of constitutional life and action is inherently political in nature.
Sometimes, of course, politicians can place moral duties ahead of their own careers or advantage. For instance, Sarah Champion MP chose to speak out in relation to ongoing concerns about the sexual exploitation of minors in Rotherham. Reasonable observers may have differing opinions about her tactics and choice of language, but it is impossible to deny that she did what she perceived to be right, regardless of the fallout in terms of her own position. This blog is not about partisan political commentary, in relation to either Spain or the UK, and we are at pains to stress that there are individuals with integrity across the political spectrum in both jurisdictions. We certainly do not endorse the cynical approach that all political actors are self-serving and unprincipled, but it would be naïve to overlook that it is in the nature of political life to be pragmatic and strategic, and to be guided by one’s party’s interests, as well as abstract moral values.
It is also unquestionable that parliamentary representatives are ultimately accountable to the electorate, and a popular vote will determine whether the choices which they have made are acceptable or not. In this sense, it is appropriate that they are not neutral figures and a facet, rather than a flaw of a liberal democratic system. At the end of the day, where the lines are drawn in relation to political behaviour, and the monitoring of its ethical standards, are questions which will be decided at the ballot-box.
Sanchez Presidente (El Pais 2/6/18)
Newly appointed Catalan minister also posted anti-Spanish social media messages (El Pais English 1/6/18)
Mariano Rajoy: Spanish PM forced out of office (BBC News 1/6/18)