It’s hard not to feel some compassion for Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s government, which limped to its one-year anniversary only in December 2012.
In that time, Rajoy’s government has weathered all of the following:
- the passage of four budget cut packages and painful tax increases — income tax rates have increased, tax breaks for home owners have been eliminated and the Spanish value-added tax increased from 18% to 21%;
- a volatile bond market that saw Spanish 10-year rates peak at 7.50% briefly at the end of July 2012, and the constant specter of yet another sovereign debt crisis;
- an increase in the Spanish unemployment rate to 26%, just narrowly below Greece’s 26.8% unemployment rate;
- yet another contraction in 2012 to Spanish GDP (1.4%) with a 1.5% contraction forecast for 2013;
- a European bailout in June 2012 of €40 billion for Bankia, a conglomerate of conglomerate of cajas (savings banks) with exposure to Spain’s sagging real estate market, despite Rajoy’s campaign promise not to seek or accept a bailout;
- the avoidance of a full European bailout of Spanish sovereign debt, while cagily working to ensure that the terms of any eventually bailout are on terms as favorable as possible (in part by holding out until the last possible moment for any potential future bailout);
- a separatist coalition, propped up by former leftist supporters of the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), took control of the regional Basque government in October 2012;
- a high-profile showdown with Catalan premier Artur Mas in advance of Catalunya’s regional elections in November 2012 that exacerbated federal-Catalan tensions and all but assured a showdown over holding an independence referendum in 2014.
But now Rajoy’s government — and Rajoy personally — is facing perhaps its biggest crisis yet, in the form of an entirely self-inflicted scandal over slush funds, when it was reported last week that Luis Bárcenas, the former treasurer of Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party), had been keeping unofficial books that provided expense payments for party leaders, including Rajoy, who received payments of up to €25,000 annually from 1997 to 2008.
The accusations come in addition to an ongoing investigation into the prior PP government of José María Aznar, the so-called Gürtel scandal involving kickbacks for contracts. The most recent allegations involve slush funds, whereby proceeds came to Bárcenas from private construction companies and went out as payments to top party officials. So the latest allegations could now also become a major focus of a judicial inquiry into the Gürtel corruption matter, endangering Rajoy’s government.
Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, leader of the center-left opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), called on Rajoy to resign as prime minister last Sunday, and 10-year bond rates are already creeping back up once again.
Rajoy’s resignation could open a further Pandora’s box of adverse outcomes for Spain, including the appointment of an even more right-wing prime minister (ahem, Esperanza Aguirre) and early elections result in strengthening more radical leftists, in the same way that Greece’s 2012 parliamentary elections strengthened SYRIZA, a coalition of the radical left, in the Hellenic parliament.
Rajoy didn’t help matters much on Monday, when he perplexingly explained that reports are all ‘untrue — except for some things.’
That’s certainly not a great reassurance for Spain or for Europe — the last thing the European Union wants, with a Cyprus bailout now on the horizon, is for a political scandal to launch Spain into even more turmoil or cause financial panic anew. German chancellor Angela Merkel, of course, is widely seen as hoping to wait through her reelection campaign later this year before pursuing any dramatic action on a new European treaty or more decisive action in the eurozone. Continue reading Can Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy survive the kickback scandal?