-- If wheels have to be greased, I don't know why we town hall employees, if they want us to work, shouldn't be greased as well. Because, after all, what are we but the administrative wheels of the municipal vehicle?
-- You have a point there... We are wheels, no more than wheels, in the town hall and in this filthy life.
From La vida como es, by Juan Antonio de Zunzunegui.
According to a CIS poll some 60 percent of people in Spain think that corruption is a universal trait. The thinking is that, alas, it is human nature to favor you and yours with disregard to the common interest. Despite the flowering of so many high-profile cases involving people from the highest orders of society, the survey shows that Spaniards are not inclined to accept that there is a strong national component in these displays of moral laxity, with the same proportion of 60 percent denying that corruption is something particular to Spanish society.
Perhaps this could explain why the same people who say they dislike corruption continue to vote for parties and leaders whose reputations have been besmirched, notably former Popular Party premier Francisco Camps in the Valencia region, who got a bigger majority in 2011 than in 2007, despite the breaking of the Gürtel scandal.
Yet Spaniards clearly value democracy very highly. Turnout at elections is high, demonstrations are frequent and well attended, and the principles of assembly and majority decisions run right through society down to the level of neighbors’ meetings and parents’ associations at schools.
In the Transition, political parties were the vehicles charged with the responsibility of taking Spain from dictatorship to democracy. Great acts of reconciliation were performed, notably to allow the return of the Communist PCE to the fold without a purge of former Franco regime members. Power and responsibilities were shared out accordingly. The structures of the new democratic state had to be filled with the new democratic forces to create a protective buffer against the very real possibility of a backlash from the old order.
That was more than 30 years ago. In that time, the centrally funded major political parties and labor unions have laid down roots across the breadth of the state. Little goes on without their influence. How many public-school teaching posts will be made available via exams this year? The unions will propose a number to the local authority. Who will head up a police force or a cultural agency? It will be someone affiliated with the political party in control of the authority that designates. Officials occupying what are theoretically non-political posts will be swept aside by the result of an election, regardless of how good a job they are doing.
This is the chosen method in Spanish democracy. It was decided that this mechanical movement of political forces, which ultimately depend on winning votes in free elections, offered a certain guarantee of public service. Clearly, it is an improvement on the wholly opaque machinations within a dictatorship, but corruption is rife and the idea of meritocracy in recruitment is rarely served well. Perhaps the most depressing environment in which to see the party-bloc system at work is in village politics, where suitable candidates for a given role tend to be scarce. This is not to mention the coarse favoring of private interests linked personally to party chiefs.
Within parties too, the use of closed lists in elections helps to ensure a strict bloc mentality and allows a corrupt local leader to feather his or her nest with little fear of an internal challenge. The 15-M movement has questioned to what extent the current system can be considered a democracy due to the hegemony of the two major parties.
Now one of those twin giants, the ruling Popular Party, has put forward proposals for a transparency law, billed as a powerful tool against corruption. With serious reservations about the eventual scope and application of the law, it has to be welcomed as a potential first step on the road to making Spain an advanced democracy. Spaniards are wrong to be fatalistic. Corruption may be part of human nature, but there are countries where this particular beast has been put in chains. But those chains must be made. Nations such as Norway or Sweden are not transparent simply because they are more developed, but rather their greater level of development has been made possible by higher-quality democracy.
But the government reform is a top-down initiative which will make no difference unless civil society and the media make the effort to keep ministers honest in this regard. The real change will only come when Spaniards reject corruption with a small ‘c’ in their everyday life. This bottom-up revolution would mean no longer agreeing to pay for services rendered in cash; not asking friend A to give employment to friend B when the latter is clearly not cut out for the job; teachers not being asked to pass a student out of consideration for the parent; and many more similar situations.
Spain needs to take a step forward. We can do it.