A whiff of the Inquisition: After 12 years in power, Spain's Socialists are plagued by scandal and social unrest, says Juan Luis Cebrian

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The Independent Online
THE POLITICAL air in Madrid has become almost impossible to breathe. Everyone is asking what the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, can do to save himself from asphyxiation.

The tension currently afflicting Spanish society is partly a result of economic recession and the reported cases of corruption. To a certain extent, however, it is also caused by the resentment felt by the right and its spokesmen after its defeat in the general elections last June.

The recession has tortured the country. It has brought a decline in the growth of its gross national product and rapidly increased unemployment, to the point where more than 20 per cent of the active population are now unemployed. Numerous companies have been forced to close and many others have embarked on reorganisation plans that will make many more thousands unemployed. Jobless protests and demonstrations have become frequent events in Spain's provincial capitals.

In the midst of these economic difficulties have come the scandals concerning senior government officials who have illegally profited from their positions. These have roused public opinion against the government. According to some surveys, a majority of Spanish voters are demanding the resignation of Felipe Gonzalez, who has been Prime Minister for 12 years.

The Conservative opposition and the Communists, who lead the United Left coalition (Izquierda Unida), head the calls for the Prime Minister's resignation from opposite ends of the political spectrum. The leader of the Conservative right, Jose Maria Aznar, has expressed his calls in harshly critical terms which are unusual for Spain's young democracy.

Although the Prime Minister's party holds a majority in parliament, it needs the support of nationalist Catalans in order to continue governing. But they maintain that support only in return for political concessions for autonomous regions. Such concessions tend to reduce the power of the central administration and increase that of Catalonia's institutions. Many believe that the Socialist leader has become a political prisoner of the President of the Generalitat (the Catalan autonomous Government).

The parliamentary and public opinion storms whipping around the corruption cases are impressive. Two ministers - Interior and Agriculture - have resigned. The ex-governor of the Bank of Spain and an ex-president of the Madrid Stock Exchange have been jailed on charges of fraud and falsifying public documents. And the former chief of the Civil Guard, Luis Roldan, fled the country after it was alleged that he could have collected hundreds of millions of pesetas in return for granting construction contracts for Civil Guard barracks. He has also been accused of embezzling funds approved by parliament and earmarked for the payment of informants and special operations.

The Civil Guard (75,000 armed men) is a corps of paramilitary police, famous the world over for their triangular caps and from the poetry of Garcia Lorca, which propagated a negative image of the corps. Today they play a prominent role in fighting terrorism, protect the country's borders and guarantee safety on the road and in rural areas.

The Civil Guard is a force to be reckoned with. It was one of its senior officers who led the attempted coup against the government on 23 February 1981, and he is still in prison. Roldan himself, who led the corps for eight years, was the first chief not to be a member of the army. Before the Socialists came to power, the post had always been occupied by a general.

The last straw for the government has been the resignation of Baltasar Garzon, head of Spain's anti-drugs campaign, progressive judge and political hopeful, who last year won a parliamentary seat for Madrid on the Socialist Party's list even though he was not a party member. As a judge, Garzon fought brilliantly against drug trafficking and was charged with conducting the pre-trial investigation into police involvement in the anti-terrorist operations that killed several members of Eta, the militant Basque separatist movement. The image cultivated by Gonzalez during the last election campaign was tied to the fight against corruption. The recent scandals involving the Civil Guard and the ex-governor of the Bank of Spain (who is accused of not declaring income to the tax authorities) were exposed by the press over the past two months. The resulting public indignation has precipitated a drastic fall in the governing party's credibility.

Over everything looms the shadow of the Socialists' forthcoming trial for illegal financing of a network created by some of the party's senior officials (the Filesa case). This has been seized on by Jose Maria Aznar as a pretext for demanding Gonzalez's resignation. Others are calling for early elections. For constitutional reasons these cannot be held before September. Next month, though, Spaniards will be voting in the European elections and for the parliament of Andalucia - the largest region in Spain and traditionally Socialist.

Some people think that overwhelming defeat for the Socialists in these elections would lead the Catalan nationalists to withdraw their support from the national government. This would cause parliament to be dissolved and force early elections in the autumn. Financial markets meanwhile are reacting to the political instability and have fallen considerably. They picked up slightly only when the Prime Minister formally declared last week that he would not resign.

None of these issues will be cleared up in the near future. Although there is a widespread belief that the Socialist programme has run out of steam and people are already forecasting victory for the right in the next elections, many fear Aznar's weaknesses and believe that victory for the Conservatives would signify a return to the past and a reversal of the undeniable advances made by the Socialists on many fronts.

Some parts of the media have encouraged the political controversy, at times to a scarcely credible degree, but everyone recognises that it is thanks only to the newspapers that the scandals were revealed in the first place.

In any event, there is a pervasive sense of mistrust and persecution which some liken to the Inquisition. Proven accusations are mixed with others that have no basis and many public figures feel they have been unjustly attacked. Those accused of corruption threaten to defend themselves by uncovering 'all the garbage' they know. The government and some officials from the judiciary seem also to be trying to compensate for their former leniency by rigorously, almost hysterically, applying the full force of the law. Despite the many and enormous differences that exist between circumstances in the two countries, comparison with Italy is inevitable.

The writer is chief executive and founder editor of 'El Pais'.