Political corruption has become synonymous with political leadership in Spain. After 16 long months of the Barcenás affair, it is common knowledge that senior members of the current governing party operated a highly lucrative political slush fund for well over 20 years.
Everyone also knows that no matter what shady backroom shenanigans their senior political representatives get up to, they will pay no price. All crime, no punishment — that’s the new modus operandi at the top of Spain’s political establishment. As if to drill this point home, the country was treated this week to a spectacle of political hubris and impunity so farcical and obscene that it leaves no doubt in one’s mind: Spain is now run by a mafia state!
It all began with a simple traffic infraction. On Thursday afternoon, at roughly 4:30 p.m. Spanish time, a unit of Madrid’s traffic police sighted a Toyota Verso illegally parked in a bus lane on Gran Via, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. They pulled up alongside the vehicle and began taking down its details.
Little did they know, however, that said vehicle belonged to Spain’s “Iron Lady”, Esperanza Aguirre, the former president of the Madrid Community and one of Spain’s most connected and powerful political figures. Aguirre had, in her own words, just “popped out” of her car to get some cash out of a nearby ATM.
When she returned to find her car surrounded by traffic wardens, the political big shot did what most big shots do in such situations: she pushed her weight around. According to a British tourist who witnessed the scene, “she got increasingly agitated.” After just a few minutes of questioning by the officers, Aguirre lost her patience and cool, put her car into gear and drove off, in the process knocking over one of the officer’s motorbikes. As she sped along Madrid’s Gran Via, a police car gave chase, but when the officers inside signalled for her to pull over, she refused.
After driving all the way home, Aguirre parked her dented Toyota in the garage. When the police arrived, they were met by agents of the Civil Guard who serve as her official bodyguards – all paid for with public money, of course, despite the fact that Aguirre no longer occupies a public role.
According to allegations in El País, the agents cautioned the police officers against pressing charges against their boss. Thankfully, the officers declined, choosing instead to report Aguirre for direct disobedience of authority.
A “Noble” Politician
Unfortunately for the police officers, they could not have picked a more powerful foe. As the Countess of Bornos, Grandee of Spain, Esperanza Aguirre is a distinguished member of the Spanish nobility. She is also the current president of the Madrid branch of the Popular Party (PP) and aspires to run as the city’s new mayor in the next round of local elections.
Adored by the right and detested by the left, Aguirre cuts a sharply polarising figure. She is also Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy’s fiercest critic and rival. Indeed, before yesterday’s brief moment of madness, Aguirre was considered one of the hot favourites to succeed, if not topple, Rajoy in the coming years.
It’s not just in Spain where Aguirre wields influence. In February 2004, she was appointed Honorary Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, making her the first Spanish woman to have received the honour. She is also a regular attendee of the world’s most exclusive elite club, the Bilderberg Group.
Until recently Aguirre enjoyed an almost spotless reputation. She is, to date, one of worryingly few senior PP politicians not to have been implicated in the Bárcenas scandal, and although rumours keep surfacing about her involvement in the Gurtel political kickbacks affair, the accusations never quite seem to stick. Like Teflon Tony (Blair), Aguirre has an annoying habit of skirting scandal.
At least, that is, until yesterday!
Hubris and Impunity
Having fled like a two-bit fugitive from the law, both in broad daylight and in front of countless witnesses and CCTV cameras, Aguirre should have somewhat more difficulty explaining her actions this time round.
That hasn’t stopped her from launching a full-frontal media attack against the officers that charged her, calling them “machistas” (male chauvinists) and accusing one of the police officers of having “badly parked” the motorbike she herself knocked down. To the undisguised glee of Spain’s right-wing press, she even snidely mocked the officer who reported her (a man who bravely discharged his duty and should be held up as a rare example of honest public service) for seeking counselling after the incident.
How quickly the countess has changed her tune! Just two days before, on April 1st, Aguirre was singing the praises of the country’s riot police for its violent suppression of protests in the country’s capital. “A self-respecting nation cannot allow the police to be attacked; they are the ultimate guarantors of our freedom,” she wrote in one tweet.
Such bare-faced hypocrisy, impunity and hubris have become par for the course among Spain’s political elite. In almost any other European country, Aguirre would have spent Thursday night behind bars. She would probably have also been tested for alcohol or drug consumption — something the police in Madrid never thought to do. Her reputation ruined, her career in tatters, she would have had little choice but to apologise publicly for her criminal behaviour, resign as president of Madrid’s Popular Party and hope that the law show mercy on her.
But this is Spain we’re talking about and as Spaniards are fond of saying these days, “Spain is different”.
In Rajoy’s Spain, the hard, heavy hand of the law is meant only for the meek and powerless. The same senior government ministers that are frantically creating new laws to criminalise political protest and dissent believe themselves to be quite literally immune from justice. Sadly, judging by the events of the last two-and-a-half years, they’re probably right.
Even when it was discovered late last summer that the Popular Party’s top bosses had taken a leaf out of Richard Nixon’s book by arranging for the destruction of incriminating evidence in the Bárcenas affair, no heads rolled, no arrests were made [watch here how Rajoy sweats and squirms as he is questioned on Bloomberg about the allegations]. Constrast that with Germany, where a number of senior politicians have had to resign after being accused of academic plagiarism. Or with the UK, where the cabinet minister Chris Hunne was made to serve 50 days of an eight-month prison sentence for having blamed a speeding offence he had committed on his wife.
You see, in most other European countries, cases of political corruption tend to be dealt with swiftly and expediently. In Spain they go on forever, or at least until the appropriate statute of limitations kicks in. Governments in other countries realise that to preserve at least the outward appearance of the rule of law, it must at least appear to apply to everyone, regardless of their position or status (with the obvious exception, of course, of senior bankers).
In Spain, by contrast, the rule of law no longer applies, if indeed it ever did; instead what we have is the law of rule. On Friday, the Minister of Justice, Alberto Ruis Gallardón, as good as granted complete immunity from prosecution to all senior members of the country’s scandal-tainted royal family, by making sure that in future they can only ever be tried for crimes they have committed in the country’s supreme court — something we can rest assured will never happen!
As for Aguirre, the chances of her paying the price for her reckless actions are razor slim — unless, of course, her political enemies, including Rajoy, decide, for convenience sake, to take her out of the picture. Much more likely is that the police officers who valiantly discharged their duties will lose their jobs, tax payers will pick up the tab for the repairs to Aguirre’s car, senior public servants will be made exempt from traffic laws and once the public furore dies down (which it no doubt will), Aguirre will be voted in as mayor of Madrid. Such is life in Spain’s mafia state!