In the summer, I interviewed Pablo Iglesias and most of what he told me did not come as a great surprise. The deputy prime minister’s insistence that the right were now locked out of government for “decades” by Podemos’s coalition with the Socialists seemed somewhat exaggerated but hardly off-message. His welcoming of Angela Merkel’s approach to the Covid-19 EU rescue fund was interesting rather than astonishing. And his claim that some in Spain would go to any lengths to try to remove him from government was a familiar refrain from a man who had become the bête noire of the right.
But his assertion that even if his party, Podemos, had won a general election, Spain’s political and economic powers would have clubbed together to prevent it from leading a government was more startling.
We will probably never find out if he was right, given Podemos’s steady electoral decline over the last five years and its status as the junior partner in this coalition. But Iglesias’s claim is worth taking seriously given that this was a senior cabinet minister saying that Spain’s democratic institutions are too weak to be sure of them following through on an election result.
For some time now those institutions have been shipping credibility. The economic crisis of a decade ago revealed thick seams of dishonesty and amateurism running through the revered financial system. The glut of corruption scandals that followed did much the same for the political class, as well as tainting the monarchy. Meanwhile, the Catalan crisis has put in question the country’s territorial model.
The monarchy took yet another, potentially fatal, body blow this summer when the former king, Juan Carlos, fled to the United Arab Emirates amid a legal storm surrounding his financial activities.
I list these episodes, misdemeanours and screw-ups not in a blithe attempt to give Spanish democracy a kicking, but rather to suggest that perhaps it’s time for a change.
There is a theory that every four decades Spain has a major crisis. It’s a fairly sound hypothesis if you take “crisis” in its broadest definition, to mean a major upheaval or trauma, and if you start in 1898. Four decades on from the military defeat and the loss of colonies of that year takes us to 1938, and the middle of the civil war. Forty years on and it’s 1978, the year of the post-Franco constitution. Move forward again and, like clockwork, you have the current territorial crisis (with the added ingredients of political confrontation and, more recently, a global pandemic).
A full-blown new constitution would be a tall order, especially right now. But surely it is time that Spain faced up to the fact that, beyond the glaring weaknesses of its politics (superbly explained here) and monarchy, the institutional bedrock of any democracy – the judiciary – is desperately ripe for an overhaul.
The Supreme Court’s use of the archaic charge of sedition to hand out draconian jail sentences to Catalan pro-independence leaders last year was just one of many decisions the judiciary has taken which have put in question its objectivity and command of basic common sense. The defendants in that case are also among many who have been the targets of the trigger-happy use of preventive custody by judges. Former FC Barcelona president Sandro Rosell, who spent two years in preventive prison before being cleared of all charges, is another. (As John Carlin has asked: can anyone seriously imagine the president of Real Madrid facing such treatment?).
The Audiencia Nacional, a court created in the Franco era, does a great deal of important work, particularly in the area of anti-terrorism and organised crime. However, it has also spent substantial time and taxpayers’ money pursuing supporters of the terrorist group Eta – which, it should be pointed out, no longer exists – as well as bringing bizarre cases against rappers, singers and other artists for crimes they have supposedly committed through their lyrics and social media posts.
There is also the question of basic consistency. This month, two regional courts, in Madrid and Castilla y León, gave opposing rulings, just days apart, on the exact same issue: whether to ratify restrictions imposed by the health ministry to control Covid-19.
Even its most ardent fans can see that the justice system needs to be more independent, better equipped and more highly regarded by Spaniards, especially if is going to continue playing the prominent role it has held in recent years in public life due to the pathological inability of politicians to “do politics”. The current government has now taken steps in this direction in an effort to end the impasse preventing new nominations to the deeply politicised judicial governing body, the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ). But that reform is driven by short-term political needs rather than a long-term vision.
All of which brings us back to Pablo Iglesias. Since I spoke to the deputy prime minister he has become a potential defendant in a case revolving around the theft of a telephone belonging to a former aide. The Supreme Court must now decide whether or not to proceed with the Byzantine “Dina case” and investigate Iglesias for allegedly tampering with a phone card, revealing secret information and falsifying a crime.
Iglesias has said that this whole affair is itself a set-up driven by those who simply cannot abide the fact he and his party are in government. To back up his argument he has pointed to several glitches in the case which would appear to cast doubt on whether it can stand up in court. Perhaps most significantly, he can also point to the fact that José Manuel Villarejo, the disgraced ex-policeman who continues to be at the centre of what appears to be a genuine deep-state apparatus, is linked to the case of the stolen phone.
I don’t know if Iglesias is guilty or not of the crimes he has been accused of – I would like to think that his deep-state theories are mere paranoia. But enough doubts have been cast on this case for it to become yet another barometer of the health and quality of the justice system and, by extension, the country’s democracy. Whichever way it goes, surely Spain should not wait another 40 years before getting itself a judiciary that is fit for purpose.