Angry at Spanish corruption, protesters break out the chorizos

Protesters across Spain yesterday wielded chorizo sausages – whose name is slang for 'thief' – to demand Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy step down.

Heino Kalis/Reuters
A protester holds chorizos (sausages) during a demonstration at the Popular Party headquarters in Valencia, Spain, on Thursday. Protests took place in more than a dozen Spanish cities calling for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to step down over a corruption scandal. 'Chorizo' is a Spanish slang for thief.

If you walked by the Spanish ruling party's offices in any of dozens of cities late Thursday, it may have looked a bit like a barbecue. But while there were plenty of chorizos – the succulent, red Spanish sausage – being wielded and, in rare cases, cooked, they were in fact symbols of protest.

In Spain's slang, "chorizo" also refers to thievery and cheating – the "chorizos" here being Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and ruling Popular Party officials who have come under intense social and political pressure this week following a court-revealed alleged corruption scheme.

The protests, organized through social media networks to demand the resignation of Mr. Rajoy, were small. But they expose growing public anger over corruption, which exacerbates already serious frustration over the grueling economic crisis. There were several injuries and multiple arrests reported, although the marches were largely colorful and peaceful. More protests have been called for Friday through Twitter and other social networks to demand Rajoy’s resignation.

The government insists that Rajoy will not resign, and have so far refused to address parliament over corruption concerns. “We don’t talk about replacements here,” said Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría on Friday. And both Rajoy and the PP have denied any wrongdoing, and do not face any charges at present.

But street pressure over corruption is rising – and fueling additional pressure from the hawkish wing of the conservative PP and some of its regional bosses who are increasingly worried about plunging voter support. They want Rajoy to put an end to the scandal once and for all, rather than just avoid answering questions.

Trading accusations

Spanish media has been trickling information for months about an alleged PP slush fund, filled primarily with kickbacks from construction companies in exchange for public contracts.

But this week saw new testimony and documents provided in court by former party treasurer Luis Bárcenas, turning up the heat beneath Rajoy and the PP.

Mr. Bárcenas has been under investigation since 2009 for his involvement in several ongoing corruption investigations during his two decades as a high-ranking PP executive in its financial department. Court investigations have slowly uncovered information implicating him – and by association, other PP leaders as well – in what could be widespread, party-sanctioned corruption.

As new information has been uncovered and the scandal has grown worse, government officials have distanced themselves from Bárcenas, calling him a “delinquent.” But Bárcenas, publicly and privately, had warned the PP he would not be made a scapegoat.

After being imprisoned last month over concerns he would flee, Bárcenas on Monday recanted previous testimony and admitted being the author of a secret accounting ledger with information on undeclared cash payments. He also provided additional corroborating documents, including a receipt implicating the PP’s secretary general, María Dolores de Cospedal.

The document allegedly shows a 200,000 euro ($260,000) cash donation that Bárcenas claims was paid by a Spanish company in exchange for being awarded a waste management contract in Toledo. He said Ms. Cospedal orchestrated the deal to pay for an election campaign, but that the money went unreported in party finances, which would constitute a crime.

Bárcenas also testified he personally hand-delivered Rajoy, Cospedal, and other PP top officials envelopes full of cash – though because Bárcenas’ numerous lies in court already, the allegations are hard to prove without more evidence. Journalists and other people close to the PP allegedly also received money from the fund.

No confidence

Spanish media suggest Rajoy and the PP will soon yield to public pressure to avoid an embarrassing no-confidence vote that the Socialist Party this week threatened to call unless Rajoy agrees to address parliament.

The PP, with its absolute majority, has shielded Rajoy and would handily reject any no-confidence vote. But even holding the vote, an extraordinarily rare event in Spanish politics, could be damaging to the government, which wants to avoid such injury and its economic consequences amid Spain's current heightened instability.

Rajoy on Monday ruled out his resignation and suggested he and the PP were being blackmailed. But markets and experts are increasingly concerned that courts could uncover damaging evidence that could ultimately trigger a change of government or snap elections.

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