Spain’s grand example for Europe

Rising public demands for honest governance were behind Friday’s unprecedented ouster of a Spanish prime minister. A new leader must now follow up with more accountability and transparency.

Spain's new Prime Minister and Socialist party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez shakes hands with ousted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy after a motion of no confidence vote at parliament in Madrid, Spain, on June 1.

Europe has never seen anything quite like it.

For the past six years, prosecutors and judges in Spain have been on a roll against corruption, backed by rising demands for accountability in government. Hundreds of politicians have been indicted for graft. A member of the royal family was convicted of embezzlement. Even the top anti-corruption prosecutor was forced to resign last year for using an offshore tax haven.

But after a court sentenced 29 people last week over a giant kickback scheme linked to the ruling Popular Party, this new mood against impunity reached a moral highpoint.

On June 1, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was ousted by parliament in a no-confidence vote. The long-serving leader was the first prime minister to be unseated since Spain returned to democracy four decades ago.

Last year, Mr. Rajoy was also the first prime minister to testify in a criminal case, the one involving members of his own party and known as the “Gürtel” (“belt” in German) case. He has not been charged in what has become modern Spain’s biggest corruption scandal. But a judge questioned his credibility as a witness in the case.

The public shift toward holding leaders responsible for corruption began after Europe’s 2011-12 financial crisis hit the Spanish economy and exposed shady deals between politicians and businesses. Before then, most voters were tolerant of officials dipping into the public purse for personal gain, according to experts and polls. They even returned politicians to office despite charges of corruption against them.

Part of the shift was reflected in the recent rise of two new parties, the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) and anti-austerity leftist party, Podemos (We Can), that have run on anti-corruption platforms. They have eroded the power of the traditional center-right Popular Party and the Socialist Party.

The new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Socialists, was forced to rely on these nontraditional, corruption-fighting parties to oust Rajoy. In the past, the Socialists have suffered their own scandals and have lost much of their popularity.

Now Mr. Sánchez needs to follow the new mood and bring more transparency and accountability to government. Other countries in Europe with systemic corruption might wish to follow Spain’s example.

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