Notes from the field

In Madrid, the team interviewed a number of politicians, lawyers, academics, and representatives of civil society organisations involved in the crisis.

On both the left and the right, narratives of the financial crisis tended to blame the causes of the overall crisis on broad, international forces, and for the most part attributed little agency in domestic actors. However, the international crisis served as a catalyst for Spain to address two key domestic problems: a growing culture of corruption and weak political institutions. Indeed, conversations about the financial crisis quickly turned into conversations about the housing bubble that erupted in Spain in the late 90s and early 2000s, and about the widespread corruption that accompanied the rapid economic growth that Spain saw as a result.

Why did this happen? First of all, the sudden austerity measures adopted in reaction to the global banking crisis were imposed without discussion or warning, and this provoked extensive grassroots mobilisation and protest. The 15M movement – ‘not a social movement, but society in movement’, according to one MP – helped to create new political actors that put the issue of corruption amongst elites firmly on the agenda.

At the moment, public confidence is low: during our trip, only one third of the Spanish electorate believed that the judiciary was independent. And during our stay, we woke to the headline that the state-appointed anti-corruption prosecutor had resigned because of revelations of stakes in an offshore company. There is the widespread perception that even the nearly five hundred prosecutions that have been initiated following the crisis fail to scratch the surface of the problem of corruption. There is also ambiguity about the effects that these prosecutions will ultimately have on public trust in government and in specific institutions: it might well be too early for the wave of prosecutions to have a visible effect on public sentiment, and many of the prosecutions are seen to be weak and ineffectual. Yet some protesters saw promise in the fact that such prosecutions were occurring at all.

It is important to note that prosecutions have focused on corruption, and have largely been occurring on the regional level, where the majority of the banks involved in the crisis were based. Primarily, the banks that needed bailouts and mergers were regional savings banks (cajas de ahorro), which had large numbers of politicians on their boards. As a result, the actors we interviewed did not readily connect the global banking crisis with the problem of corruption because no large Spanish banks ultimately needed bailouts.

Spain has largely refrained from ‘looking at the past’ during this crisis. The Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry that have occurred are seen to be politicised, ‘just a theatre’, and do not result in lasting institutional changes. They are, moreover, conducted by parliamentarians who lack the relevant expertise to draw meaningful lessons about reform.

With two exceptions, no Spanish politicians (or bankers) apologised for their role in the crisis. And both exceptions barely counted as apologies: the King infamously went on an African hunting trip at the height of the austerity measures, and apologised by saying, ‘I’m very sorry. I made a mistake. It won’t happen again’. (And it would not happen again, because the King resigned shortly thereafter, so great was public anger.) The second expression of regret was issued by former PSOE Prime Minister, Jose Luis Zapatero: ‘it was a clear mistake to avoid using the word crisis’. Yet this ‘pseudo apology’ was accompanied by Zapatero’s qualification that ‘the word apology does not enter into the vocabulary of political accountability’.

Broadly speaking, although Spain has in some ways recovered economically from the banking crisis, it is still struggling to come to terms with weak political institutions. Concrete institutional reforms have yet to be seen, but there is promise in the mobilisation of the transparency movement and in the revitalisation of the partisan landscape. As many of our participants commented, Spanish party politics is far more vibrant and exciting than it has been in previous years.