Political corruption scandals cast a deep shadow over the government of Mariano Rajoy for much of his four-year tenure. Now they are darkening the Spanish leader’s prospects of hanging on to power.
At a moment when rival party leaders are locked in talks over forming a new government, Mr Rajoy’s Popular party is buffeted by a wave of arrests, revelations and resignations linked to corruption. In Valencia, for decades a bastion of PP power, the party has become the target of a judicial probe into allegations of bid rigging and illegal commissions. The judge leading the investigation has named nine out of 10 PP councillors in the city as formal suspects in the case.
The party is also under fire in Madrid, where the local party headquarters was raided by police last week over suspicions that the branch received illegal payments from businesses. On Sunday, the case claimed one of the most prominent political scalps yet: Esperanza Aguirre. The local PP leader and a highly influential figure inside the ruling party announced her resignation, saying she accepted her “political responsibility” for the scandal. Ms Aguirre told a news conference: “Corruption is killing us.”
For Mr Rajoy, the latest eruption of corruption cases could scarcely have come at a worse time. His party emerged as the biggest bloc in parliament from an inconclusive general election in December, but he needs the support of other parties to be re-elected as prime minister. With the PP mired in corruption scandals, that task appears even more daunting.
“These corruption cases don’t make it any easier to get a deal with a PP that is led by Rajoy,” says Antonio Roldán, a lawmaker for the centrist Ciudadanos party and a member of its coalition negotiating team. “I don’t think Rajoy can lead the transition we need now. And I don’t think even his party believes that any more.”
Mr Rajoy has spent the past two weeks on the political sidelines after declining an offer from King Felipe VI to lead the first round of coalition talks. The royal mandate was then extended to Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Socialists party, who has until the first week of March to build a viable coalition government.
With the PP and the Socialists refusing to support each other, Mr Sánchez will need to win over both Ciudadanos and the anti-austerity Podemos movement — a three-way alliance that most observers still regard as unlikely.
Mr Rajoy has made clear he is ready to present his own candidacy when and if Mr Sánchez fails. But many analysts argue that the current string of corruption scandals will severely weaken the negotiating position of Spain’s acting prime minister.
“If the PP suddenly starts losing ground in the polls as a result of corruption they will have a much greater incentive to strike an agreement [and so avoid a new election]. But at the same time the party will be much more toxic to potential partners,” says Jorge Galindo, a political analyst and editor of the Politikon blog.
Recent polls suggest that Spain’s four main parties would obtain more or less the same result as they did in the December 20 election — though there is a chance that Podemos could overtake the Socialists as the second-biggest party in terms of the popular vote.
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, on Monday presented his party’s proposal for a joint government with the Socialists. He hailed the document as a solid basis for a “government of progress” but met a cold response from senior Socialist officials.
The Podemos programme calls for, among other things, an independence referendum in the Spanish region of Catalonia — a demand that the Socialists have made clear they will not accept. The paper also calls for Mr Iglesias — who has put himself forward as deputy prime minister — to be given oversight of Spain’s CNI intelligence service, another demand that is unlikely to pass muster with the Socialists.
Antonio Hernando, the leader of the Socialist group in parliament, on Monday summed up his party’s response to the Podemos in harsh words: “I would say to Mr Iglesias: Pablo, you don’t know where you are.”
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