Friday, December 06, 2013

When Friendship Is Not Corrupt

Spain has slipped to number 40 in the worldwide ranking of corruption by country issued by Transparency International. This is a ranking which is called the "Corruption Perceptions Index". The title is quite important. While it can be relatively straightforward to highlight cases of corruption - as with those which come to courts - it is less straightforward to make tangible the intangible, an underlying sense of corruption or of not. The perception of corruption.

Some reaction to Spain's fall to number 40 has been predictable enough. On one side, it is a clear consequence of highly publicised corruption cases and is therefore unsurprising. On the other side, it means little because every country is corrupt and Spain is no more so than any other. Both reactions carry elements of truth but where the latter is concerned, it is far too simplistic a reaction. It is also, in a sense, irrelevant. While Spain can see where it ranks in relation to other countries, comparison really isn't the issue. What is, is that there is a stronger perception of corruption in Spain than in many European (and other countries), and such a perception goes beyond the highly publicised cases; it has to, as corruption is a societal matter as much as it is a political one. The perception is, in effect, a measure of the totality of corruption: how pervasive it is or is not; how rooted within society's mores it is or is not.

We are familiar with the highly publicised cases in Spain, be they those related to the caso Gürtel, to the King's son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, and (though only possibly) to Mariano Rajoy, supposedly the recipient of illegal payments, as noted in the ledgers of former Partido Popular treasurer, Luis Bárcenas. That Rajoy has not been charged with anything, and probably never will be charged, does not reduce the perception of corruption. Quite the opposite. It is the very fact that he has appeared in the Bárcenas ledgers which just adds to the perception.

Mallorca has been described as being one of the most if not the most corrupt parts of Spain, the result of the numerous corruption cases that have arisen, especially since the end of the Matas government and the fall of his one-time partners, the old Unió Mallorquina party. Jaume Matas, a former president, is a high-profile case, so he is another reason for the perception of Spain's corruption being as it is. But of the Matas-related cases to have been brought to court thus far, there is evidence of the wider pervasiveness of corruption, even if this is not evidence of what we might typically consider to be corruption or indeed what many people in Mallorca might consider to be less than fully appropriate. Money doesn't have to change hands. Positions of power do not have to be given. All that is needed is a favour, one born out of what might even be thought of as a societal acceptance of the power of friendship - the "amiguismo" network, a phenomenon which is very much more pervasive in Spain and Mallorca than it might be in other countries. It has to be more pervasive. If it were not, then why is it so often referred to when it is not elsewhere?

Matas has just been found guilty of having abused his position in order to secure a job for his wife. His defence was that he was only doing what any "father of the family" would do. He almost certainly believed he wasn't doing anything wrong. Everyone does the same, or so Matas would doubtless believe. Everyone might do the same if they were in a similar position which could be abused and have a similar network of friends of whom a favour could be asked. Not everyone does, and so no, not everyone does the same. Only some.

Maite Areal, Matas's wife, received a salary of 42,000 euros for a job she never carried out. She was on the payroll of the Valparaiso hotel in Palma, a hotel which forms part of the Grupotel chain. Its president and founder, Miguel Ramis, himself a former mayor of Muro who has been disqualified from public office, told the court he had agreed to Matas's request as a favour.

So here is an example of how inappropriate behaviour extends its tentacles into wider society, the business world in this case, and in so doing, it casts a shadow over how that business world and the political world actually operate and interact. It casts a further shadow into Mallorcan society because of connections that a large hotel chain might have. And indeed the court also heard from another Miguel Ramis, one-time mayor of Alcúdia, himself associated with hotels, the PP's Balearics spokesperson and the nephew of the other Miguel Ramis. The appointment of Matas's wife was one based on friendship not on politics, he told the court.

Wheels within wheels, friendships within friendships. Not obviously corrupt. Just how it is. Perceptions count for a great deal.

* For the record, and so by way of comparison, Spain is not the worst of the European countries which once formed the pre-Soviet/Balkans break-up, "democratic" Europe. Italy is 69th, Greece is 80th. The most virtuous of these countries are Denmark (first), Finland, Sweden and Norway (third, fourth and fifth), Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Iceland and, in fourteenth spot, the UK. Of non-European countries ahead of Spain are New Zealand (second), Singapore, Barbados, the USA, Chile, Qatar and Botswana.

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