Seven Reasons Why Corruption Reigns in Spain

Overall, Spain’s Ministry of Justice is currently investigating more than 700 cases of high-level corruption involving politicians from both major parties in all of the country’s 48 provinces. This includes 264 cases involving Socialists, 200 involving Conservatives, and hundreds more involving smaller regional parties. (See here for a map of corruption in Spain according to political party.)

After it emerged that more than 100 Socialist and Conservative politicians were running for re-election in municipal elections in May 2011 who were simultaneously under investigation for corruption, the head of the Socialist Party flippantly declared that corrupt Socialists were less corrupt than corrupt Conservatives.

One essay summed it up: “Being a corrupt politician in Spain is the safest criminal job there is. It is much safer than robbing banks or stealing handbags from old ladies. This country has invented the most effective system of impunity that is known in the galaxy, based on the motto ‘and you are more corrupt.’ Each party takes the view that their corrupt politicians are less corrupt than those of other parties and for that reason their corruption is the most beneficial.”

Spain has dropped five positions in the annual Corruption Perceptions Index produced by the Berlin-based Transparency International. Spain ranked number 30 in 2010, down from number 25 in 2005. Bribery, money laundering, and tax fraud have cost Spain at least €4.2 billion ($6 billion) over the past ten years, according to calculations by the center-right El Mundo newspaper, which calculated the figure based on court records and investigations of just 28 of the biggest corruption cases.

Spanish newspapers have been chock full of articles reflecting on Spain’s propensity for corruption: "Corruption in Spain: A Grave Problem for the Loss of Foreign Investment"; "The Corruption Ballot"; "The Map of Socialist Shame in Extremadura"; "New Form of Corruption: Keep the Money of Fake Retirees"; and "Why is There so Much Corruption in Spain?".

International media have also published stories on the phenomenon: "Why is Spain so Corrupt?"; "Scandal Sullies Spain’s Clean Energy"; "Spain Sees Endless Season for Political Scandal"; "Spain and the Rise of Eco-Corruption?"; "Corruption Widespread in Spanish Universities"; and "Corruption in Spain: Shady Deals in the Sun."

From these analyses, it is possible to discern seven theories (structural, cultural, and/or historical) which try to explain the prevalence of corruption in Spain:

The "Opportunity" Theory: This structural theory posits that a decades-long construction boom created unprecedented opportunities for corruption in Spain. As local governments issued building permits and authorized changes in land use from rural to urban development, they created huge profits for property developers as well as for municipalities. Taking this theory one step further, local bureaucrats on fixed salaries were able to leverage their power vis-à-vis cash-rich property developers to demand bribes in exchange for approving and fast-tracking building permits.

The "Incentives" Theory: This structural theory posits that Spain’s notorious bureaucracy creates added incentives for corruption: the more red tape involved in doing business, the greater the likelihood that a bureaucrat will demand a bribe and/or the more incentive there is to pay for “short-cuts.” In other words: the bigger the government, the greater potential for abuse.

The "Transparency" Theory: This structural theory posits that the lack of transparency in Spanish government institutions and decision-making increases the likelihood for corruption because the chances of getting caught taking a bribe are relatively low. When combined with lax law enforcement and weak punishments, corruption becomes more commonplace.

The "Regionalism" Theory: This structural/historical theory posits that after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975 and the end of his 40-year dictatorship, Spain’s fledgling democracy devolved considerable power back to the regions. In the post-Franco period, national parties have been highly dependent on coalitions with regional parties in order to govern. This has encouraged a certain “hands-off” policy of non-intervention by the central government in local/regional affairs. This in turn has cemented a system of clientelism into the fiber of regions like Andalucía and Extremadura, which have been ruled by the Socialist Party for more than three decades.

The "Allegiance" Theory: This cultural theory posits that in Spain and other southern European countries where corruption is rife, people often look after the immediate and extended family before the greater good of society as a whole. This “me first” attitude incentivizes corruption at the most basic level of social organization, whether it be family, village, town, city, province, and/or region.

The "Religion" Theory: This cultural theory posits that as a works-based religion, Roman Catholicism facilitates corruption in countries (like Spain) where it dominates because it is easy to sin and be forgiven. According to this theory, the act of confession to a priest and doing penance (simply reciting a mantra of Hail Mary’s) enables wrongdoers to balance their sins with good deeds. This is in contrast to Protestant theology, where sinners are held directly accountable to God Himself. Many analysts also point to a connection between Roman Catholicism and clientelism in Spain.

The "Revenge" Theory: This cultural/historical theory posits that corruption is a habit that was revived during the Franco dictatorship when thwarting the state was an act of resistance. Others say that after Franco died, Spain entered into a period of 14 years (1982-1996) of uninterrupted socialism when people took “revenge” against the dictatorship by “reclaiming” what was “stolen” from them.

Which theory is best? Most observers of Spanish politics would probably agree that corruption in the country can be best explained by a combination of all the theories, although all the money generated by the construction boom created perfect conditions for spiralling corruption.

The big unanswered question is: With Spain on the brink of financial collapse, how much longer will Spaniards tolerate the endemic corruption that is such a huge drain on the national economy?