Behind a shiny modernising façade, Spain's socialists have abused power on an heroic scale. Victor de la Serna, of El Mundo, regrets the immaturity of southern European democraciesby Victor De La Serna / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
It seems as if a sudden avalanche of scandal and suspicion is engulfing the regime of Felipe González in the run-up to Spain’s March election. But the avalanche has been rolling for several years. In fact, it began not long after González’s Socialist party swept to power 14 years ago. Domestic acclaim was soon followed by international admiration of this civilised, worldly new type of Latin socialist. When domestic opinion began to turn sceptical-partly as a result of scandals-the outside world did not like it, fearing an unstable era in Spanish history if the socialists were toppled. Foreign loyalty to the government was underpinned by the conviction that González’s eroding support was the result of unfair campaigning by one Madrid newspaper, El Mundo. El Mundo was said to suffer from “the Watergate syndrome.” Pedro Ramirez, its editor, was portrayed as “an obsessive” who thought he could bring down a government he loathed by exposing imaginary scandals. He was accused of being bankrolled by wealthy characters-such as banker Mario Conde-who had run foul of the government. By 1995, a besieged cabinet had begun complaining about “a conspiracy against democracy.” But facts are stubborn. None of the main charges made by El Mundo have been proved false and the accelerating loss of voter support endured by the socialists since the 1989 elections has made it increasingly difficult to muzzle the paper. Not that efforts weren’t made, including a spate of stern messages to the largest single shareholder in El Mundo, Italy’s Rizzoli Corriere della Sera group. El Mundo-now Spain’s second largest newspaper with a daily circulation of 330,000 copies-was founded in October 1989 by a group of journalists who had just left another paper, Diario 16, in solidarity with their sacked editor, Pedro Ramirez. His sacking was linked to stories which the other media had forgotten, in particular the unsolved murders, between 1983 and 1987, of two dozen Basque residents in southern France-most but not all suspected members of the Eta terrorist group. The investigations, which continued in El Mundo, eventually uncovered government involvement in the so-called “death squads.” These and other scandals have brought González to what appears to be the brink of electoral defeat. The political opposition has played little part in this. It started the González era in the early 1980s in complete disarray, and has scarcely recovered. The right has been struggling to regenerate itself in order to shed its Franco image. The centrists committed hara-kiri after seeing through the constitution. And the communists have been in the throes of their worldwide crisis. The unions have grumbled but they have posed few serious problems for a “fraternal” cabinet. The media-which had helped the socialists in their ascent-have been slow to regain their inquisitive bite. They preferred to f?e those young, bearded, glamorous democrats who were leading Spain into Europe. Some media groups were duly rewarded with favours, broadcast licences or government largesse when the old chain of state-owned newspapers was privatised in 1984. The remaining state-controlled broadcast media were subject to tight political controls reminiscent of the Franco era. There is still no independent broadcast authority in Spain to manage public radio and television or to award commercial television licences. Everything is directly run from the cabinet. So the stage was set for a decade of socialist power without contest. As no one was looking, or at least telling, González and his people started looking for short cuts to solve their political problems. Everything seemed so easy back then-and they were so smart. In the economic domain, Spain’s fragile industrial base was partially dismantled under the EC accession treaty (1986) which gave it very little time to adapt before full liberalisation. The then economy minister, Carlos Solchaga, preferred the “get rich quick” system of attracting speculative foreign capital through inflated interest rates. Easy money fostered corruption, while the artificially high peseta unhinged the trade balance and accelerated industrial decline. The roller-coaster continued in a crescendo of budget deficits until the crash of 1992-the year in which Spain giddily organised an Olympics and a World Expo. The peseta suddenly lost 40 per cent of its value. The misery behind the shiny fa?e was revealed. Many of the financiers who were courted by the socialists were exposed. A former Bank of Spain governor was accused of insider trading and, after an El Mundo investigation, admitted that he had evaded tax payments. Another series of news reports highlighted the covert financing of the Socialist party through disguised donations from large banks and corporations. Meanwhile, Spain’s other national priority-the scourge of Basque terrorism-had also been addressed by the government via a series of short cuts. After eight years of pressure from Diario 16 and El Mundo, some leading interior ministry officials and the former head of the Socialist party in the Basque country have now confessed to organising kidnappings and death squads against Eta. In meetings held months after their 1982 electoral victory, socialist officials had decided that such covert action might end terrorism. The courts are still trying to ascertain just how high in the cabinet the responsibility might go. Several officials were directly accusing Jos?arrionuevo, González’s interior minister between 1983-87. The lack of control over covert funds used for illegal activities certainly led to the money being used for personal enrichment in the interior ministry and in the paramilitary civil guard. Because of these revelations, El Mundo has been treated as a leper by the establishment, and its reporting has been completely ignored by the broadcast media. This is crucial in a country where 80 per cent of the voters get all of their information from television. Thankfully, in the past few years El Mundo has felt less lonely, as other newspapers have regained their critical instincts. Comparisons with Watergate may seem exaggerated. In fact things has been far worse in Spain (having covered Watergate as a young foreign correspondent I am well placed to compare). The point about Watergate is that the Washington Post reporters provided only the spark. Between 1972-74, key characters such as Judge John Sirica or Senator Sam Ervin were decisive in defeating the stonewalling effort by the White House and forcing the president to resign as impeachment loomed. Public opinion was kept informed, not only by the Washington Post, but by television networks which served as loudspeakers for every bit of information provided by Woodward and Bernstein. In Spain, eight years after the first news of serious government-related misdeeds were published, the stonewalling effort continues, backed by large parts of the media and the partly government-controlled judiciary. The message is finally getting across that too much unchecked power has damaged Spanish democracy. But the response of Spanish institutions remains feeble, and it seems that only the ballot box will enable a new start. Such an outcome is not a foregone conclusion. González may even prevent the opposition from winning an overall majority. All this demonstrates an irrefutable fact which is difficult to mention in polite society: that southern European democracies are not really open societies, but complex webs of vested interests, muffled media and mutual back-scratching. These networks are only occasionally revealed when a magistrate such as Antonio di Pietro or a stubborn newspaper such as El Mundo breaks the rules.