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Corruption in Spain: perceptions versus reality

Filip Norén
27 de abril de 2017

When asked to name the most corrupt places on Earth, it is likely that your first thought is ‘Latin America’ in general, possibly eclipsed by some African countries. The real surprise is that countries we tend to think of as established democracies rank poorly for corruption. Spain ranks an alarming 41st in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), alongside the likes of Georgia, Costa Rica, and Brunei

This is undoubtedly disturbing. Earlier in April, the latest wave of arrests saw numerous leaders of the ruling Partido Popular (PP) detained on suspicion of corruption. However, Spain’s corruption problem is a problem of perception as much as it is a problem of actual corruption. Fortunately, there seems to be a tide of transparency currently and it may change institutions for the better.

Spain’s unimpressive 41st place can be compared to France scoring 23rd, Portugal 29th, and Germany and UK 10th. Italy lands a worrying 60th place. For a Spain that wishes to compete in Europe and beyond, this is of course reason for alarm. The CPI is based on perceptions of the extent of public sector corruption among business executives and country experts. Also, in the 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report, Spanish business executives report corruption as the 7th most problematic factor for companies. Notably, they rated inefficient government bureaucracy and high taxes, among other factors, as more problematic.

Public perceptions are reflected in the 2016 Global Corruption Barometer: 66% of Spaniards think that corruption is one of the biggest problems facing their country. This is among the worst of all EU and Central Asian countries, on par with Kosovo and Moldova. Furthermore, 80% of Spaniards believe that their government is doing a bad job fighting corruption.

Before concluding that Spain is corrupt and its government is part of the problem rather than the solution, it serves to consider the concept of corruption. It can be defined as any moral perversion, or the alteration of something to misrepresent the original. Then there is corruption as we know it in political and economic terms: bribing, treating, or otherwise exercising undue influence.

Politics and power are not intrinsically corrupt or corrupting. Within weak institutions, however, unprincipled officials can act in corrupt ways to achieve wealth and status. Importantly, there is the act of corruption itself and, as a  separate entity, there is the impression of it that spreads publically.

The past few years have seen several much-publicized scandals resulting in public investigations and trials against Spanish top politicians and officials. This may explain the worsening statistics regarding perceived corruption by businesses and citizens, but it does not necessarily mean that actual corruption is rising. In total, only a handful of cases of varying magnitudes feature in the Spanish media every year - a pattern that has remained since the return of democracy in the mid-70s.

Notably, the CIS Barometer for May 2016 showed that the Spanish people first perceived corruption as a major problem in 1993. It soon disappeared as a concern, to surface again in 2012. It has risen significantly since then, coinciding with the worst period of the recession. When economic conditions of a population change dramatically for the worse, corruption that results in the squandering or theft of public resources will naturally have a greater impact on people’s views. This increased alertness to malpractices by elected representatives that were previously hidden or conveniently overlooked helps account for the rising perceptions of corruption. 

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