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Are corruption-weary Spaniards nearing a tipping point?

It’s hard to find Spanish children these days who want to grow up to be president.

For the first time in nine years, Spanish children included politics as one the least favorite professions they aspire to pursue when they grow up.

The poll results released last week by Adecco, a human resources consulting firm, are anecdotal. But they are an illustration of Spanish society’s evolving relations with what a vast majority of Spaniards perceive as inherently corrupt institutions and leadership.

Society’s stance on corruption is blurry though. On the one hand, Spaniards are among the least likely to engage in corruption – such as paying bribes – among Western peers, according to Transparency International reports over the years. On the other hand they tolerate what most consider a rotten political and corporate culture.

But the stream of scandals involving Spain's rich and powerful – including most important political parties, the royal family, banks and other major corporations, the armed forces, and even sports teams – cheating to enrich themselves, coupled with the worst economic pain in decades, may be touching a nerve. A combination of research, expert opinion, and voter trends evidence suggest that Spaniards' tolerance of corruption is beginning to wither.

Multiple historic and even cultural factors help explain why “the relation with those in power is corrupt, even if Spaniards are not,” says Manuel Villoria, a political scientist at Rey Juan Carlos University who researches corruption. “In essence, Spaniards are not corrupt, but there is a lot of corruption at the political level, especially in local and regional governments.”

“Are we learning? There is early evidence of a civil reaction and polls suggest things are changing,” Dr. Villoria says. “But we don’t see significant institutional reform to accompany that and we don’t know if it will stick.”

Double standard

Corruption “is tolerated or accepted” by Spaniards as a normal practice in politics, according to a qualitative analysis of society’s perception of corruption published by the autonomous government agency Center for Sociological Research in 2011.

It’s a top-down phenomenon “because power enables” corruption, “but it also feeds from below, from very tolerant citizens’ behavior toward minor forms of corruption, such as avoiding paying taxes and using personal contacts to achieve personal benefits,” the report said.

Corruption and clientelism – the exchange of economic gain for political support – are tolerated especially when the ill-gotten benefits trickle down, several studies show. That doesn’t mean that Spaniards like how things work, but rather that they see no alternative to playing along. In so doing, though, they inadvertently reinforce a system that inevitably hurts them in the long term.

“Historically, corrupt officials have not been punished in elections and this is indicative of a double standard,” Villoria says. “When there’s a crisis we expect Scandinavian rigor,” referring to northern European countries that consistently rank as the world’s most transparent. “But when the economy was going well there was a lot less rigor and significantly more tolerance.”

Spaniards cited corruption and fraud as the country’s second most pressing problem, behind unemployment, according to the July monthly barometer released by the Center for Sociological Research. Politicians and political parties rank fourth.

Concern over corruption more than tripled in tandem with the worsening economic crisis over the last twelve months. In July 2012, it ranked as the fourth most pressing problem. But the concern was basically nonexistent for well over a decade until 2009, when the worst of the crisis took hold of Spain.

Indeed, not since the early 1990s – also during an economic downturn – has corruption been as big a concern as it now.

Touching a nerve

It’s not that there is more corruption now, experts say, but several high-profile cases of rampant personal profiteering have hit a nerve amid the economic pain of millions of Spaniards – fueling an unprecedented mistrust of the country’s institutions.

Courts are investigating King Juan Carlos’s son-in-law; over a hundred officials and business leaders in a corruption ring allegedly run by the Socialist Party-governed Andalusia region; several corporate executives, especially from the construction sector; and regional leaders and government ministers.

The most damaging case though involves the governing Popular Party and its top leaders, all the way up to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

A jailed former PP treasurer is being tried for his role in an alleged institutionally sanctioned scheme to procure illegal cash payments from mostly construction companies in exchange for state contracts. The slush fund was then used for campaigning, luxurious expenses, and cash bonuses for leaders.

Mr. Rajoy denied in parliament this month any personal or PP wrongdoing, accusing the former treasurer of acting alone. Opposition parties demanded the government’s resignation and suggested that any northern European leader in his shoes would have long stepped down.

But Rajoy is shielded by the robust voter mandate he won in November 2011 election, when several corruptions investigations in party finances were already under way.

“Spain is an immature democracy,” says Fernando Jimenez, a political science professor in Pablo Olavide University in Seville and an expert on corruption. “It’s a 30-year-old democracy and Spain hasn’t developed the culture of political responsibility.”

Change?

“I don’t deny there are some cultural factors,” says Villoria. Spaniards are very mistrustful of power wherever it lies, and have historically concluded that “since everyone is corrupt, then all must act in a corrupt way. That is why citizens reward those who are corrupt.”

There are signs though that Spaniards might have just had enough of tolerating corruption. Voter intention polls show continued dissent from dominant political parties to the benefit of smaller organizations, in a sign that even the most traditional voters are turning their backs on how things have worked so far.

“Society increasingly is concluding that it has to bet on other political actors, and this hadn’t been the case before,” says Dr. Jiménez. “Demographic studies also show those who are fed up are well educated and between 25 and 45 years old, with a lot of capacity to organize. That wasn’t the case before either, because elites were the reactive ones.”

There is room for optimism, experts agree. But it’s still early. There is a risk that country leaders will co-opt popular demands and limit themselves to cosmetic reforms, “and that will only increase the social crisis,” Jiménez says.

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