Monday, February 04, 2013

Ledgergate II: The Bomb That Went Off

Mariano Rajoy is not a charismatic rogue like Silvio Berlusconi. He is not a charismatic, regular-guy chameleon like Tony Blair. He is an uncharismatic, uncommunicative grey beard, of whom it is hard to believe that he is anything other than an honest broker or that he might willingly have been in receipt of what allegedly amounted to over 320,000 euros over eleven years, money noted in the "B" accounts held by the former treasurer of the Partido Popular, Luis Bárcenas.

"El País" devoted six pages on Sunday to a full publication of the Bárcenas ledgers, the day after Rajoy spoke at a hastily-convened meeting of the Partido Popular's national executive committee and denied everything. Rajoy, as is his wont, refused to take questions. One suspects that he so rarely engages directly with the media or takes questions, because he doesn't want to put his foot in it, but in being quiet, he succeeds in arousing only suspicion and a lack of sympathy.

As the number of people who have signed an online petition demanding Rajoy's resignation hurtles towards the one million mark, it is clear that sympathy is in short supply. Not just a lack of sympathy. Lack of confidence, too. A poll indicates that 85% of the electorate do not trust Rajoy. The only crumb of comfort he can take is from the fact that 89% of the electorate don't trust the leader of the opposition, who has, unsurprisingly, also called for Rajoy to resign.

The reaction is understandable. The Bárcenas papers appear to have Rajoy bang to rights. You would expect him to deny everything, expect him to hope that support he enjoys from Frau Merkel and some sign of growth, if not this year then next, will put all the current embarrassment into the shade. But the latter hope is distant and possibly illusory, while support for the Partido Popular has nosedived. Its poll rating is now more or less the same as that for PSOE, bereft of ideas and personality but suddenly thrown a lifeline, thanks to the secret ledgers. The PP can't afford to wait for the Godot of minimal growth; there is a God-awful mess stinking the party out that needs cleaning up right now.

My initial reaction to the ledgers was that they were explosive but was also questioning. Were they authentic? There now seems little doubt that they are, in that they are Bárcenas's work, and nor is there much doubt that they have been known about for quite some considerable time. The PP had thought they would not see the light of day, but they now have.

Rajoy describes the ledgers as false, a view shared by party grandees, some of whom want legal proceedings to be started against Bárcenas. But if the ledgers are false, why did Bárcenas go to such elaborate lengths in inventing them? Why has at least one of the entries, that of a loan to the president of the Senate, Pio García Escudero, been verified? As far as this is concerned, the internal investigation that the party has launched rejects the idea that this loan was part of the so-called "B" ledgers but was part of the "A" ledgers, the official accounts.

This may be a reasonable and acceptable explanation as far as one particular item is concerned, but there are plenty of other explanations that need making and which Rajoy avoided on Saturday. One, offered by the party's vice-secretary-general, Esteban González Pons, is that the ledgers were written at one sitting, thus implying some form of invention.

But the party's explanations on their own are not sufficient. There needs to be a full and independent investigation, as the ledgers, with their implications of black money, of funding from construction companies and others that exceeded legal limits and which may have been made to smooth the way to contracts, of connections to ongoing corruption investigations, are too serious not to be subject to such an investigation.

The PP government is introducing a law on transparency, directed in particular at political party funding, one that has been criticised for being far too opaque. If it is true to its word of transparency, then it has to be prepared to be investigated. Nothing else will satisfy.

Bárcenas was treasury manager for 18 years, then succeeded Álvaro Lapuerta as treasurer in 2008, at a time when he was already considered to be a ticking bomb because he knew so much. As soon as he was implicated in the "caso Gürtel" corruption scandal the following year, he became even more of a bomb ready to go off. The bomb has now gone off. But was the explosive genuinely live?

Any comments to please.

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