LISBON, Portugal (AP) — In Spain, citizens are fuming over tales of a secret political slush fund. In Portugal, people are aghast that a former prime minister has been jailed awaiting a possible trial for corruption. In both austerity-hit countries, mounting revelations of graft among the political class are fueling the emergence of new parties that have captured the mood of disaffected voters by offering a message of change.
With Iberia still reeling from the aftershocks of Europe’s debt crisis, economics and ethics are poised to drive a shift in the political landscape, just as they have in Italy and Greece.
“All politicians by their nature are corrupt,” said Kerian Jimenez, a 24-year-old student in Madrid. “And as always it is the normal crowd that gets shafted.”
Jose Socrates, who was Portugal’s center-left prime minister from 2005 to 2011, was sent to jail last week while police deepen their investigation into his suspected money laundering and tax fraud, with the former two-term leader facing a potential maximum sentence of 21 years. It was the third major scandal in four months involving the country’s political and business elite.
The resignation of Spain’s health minister last week after a judge said she benefited financially from an allegedly illegal slush fund compelled center-right Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to address the issue in Parliament on Thursday. “Corruption is a problem,” Rajoy, head of the governing Popular Party, conceded. Reports of new cases have “become Spaniards’ daily bread.”
Promising to tighten laws and punish the guilty, Rajoy insisted that “most politicians are decent people.” That didn’t wash with many Spaniards, however, especially as a judge has named more than 40 people as suspects, including three former Popular Party treasurers and the outgoing health minister, in the case involving alleged illegal financing of Rajoy’s party.
Amid the hardship and discredited leaders, the possibility of Iberian voters now shifting their political allegiances is real.
In Spain, which weathered two periods of recession between 2009 and 2013 and where unemployment is at around 24 percent, a loose-knit grass-roots leftist party called Podemos (We Can) threatens to reset the political center of gravity. A survey of voting intentions published this month by the El Mundo newspaper indicated for the first time that Podemos could take first place with about 28 percent of the national vote, against roughly 26 percent for the Popular Party and 20 percent for the leading opposition Socialist Party.
“There is a feeling of change in the air,” said Inigo Errejon, a Podemos founder.
New parties and groups that promise a new — and cleaner — way of doing things are sprouting up in neighboring Portugal, too. Among them is Juntos Podemos (Together We Can), which on Thursday pointedly held its first news conference across the road from the Council for the Prevention of Corruption, a government institution specializing in the law.
Portugal and Spain are not alone in their problems. A European Commission survey published in February on public perceptions of corruption found that almost 60 percent of those questioned in the European Union believed bribery and the abuse of power for personal gain are widespread among political parties. Corruption affects all 28 EU countries and costs the bloc’s economies around 120 billion euros ($150 billion) a year, the European Commission said.
In southern Europe, the drive away from traditional parties began in Italy and Greece.
Former Italian comic Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement capitalized on a wave of voter disgust with the ruling political class to capture most votes in Italy’s 2013 parliamentary elections.
In elections in May to the European Parliament, Greek opposition party Syriza, which demands that most of the country’s bailout debts be canceled, triumphed in the Greek ballot with 26.6 percent of the vote. In national elections seven years earlier, it had earned the support of just 5 percent of voters.
Both Iberian neighbors face elections for a new government next year.
Antonio Costa Pinto of Lisbon University’s Institute of Social Science says the corruption scandals have deepened mistrust of politicians and generated a mood of “them-and-us.” That, coupled with biting austerity, “will aggravate the feeling of injustice” and fuel the rise of populist parties, he said.