In a country mired by corruption scandals and widespread mistrust of the elite, news that the sister of Spain’s King Felipe VI, Princess Cristina, will become the first direct member of the Spanish royal family to stand trial for alleged tax fraud isn't a sign of defeat. Rather, it is seen as a potential turning point.
I heard about it moments after it was announced. “Hey!” I heard from downstairs. “Sara!”
“What? What?” I asked expectantly, knowing from the tone of my Spanish husband’s voice it was a good news “hey.” Someone expecting a baby? We won Spain’s “El Gordo,” the world’s largest Christmas lottery drawn today?
“The princess is going to be tried,” he hollered up.
I, an American, probably would have been more excited about the lottery, but for Spaniards, this is huge news. She faces two counts of accessory to tax fraud relating to her husband’s business affairs.
In terms of the royals' accountability, the decision to try Cristina is historic. It caps off a four-year investigation that has marred the reputation of the monarchy in Spanish public opinion, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in January. That investigation helped usher in the abdication of King Juan Carlos in June, and prompted his son King Felipe to promise an “honest and transparent monarchy” when he took up the reign. Cristina's husband, Iñaki Urdanganrín, has already been charged in the investigation.
But it’s more the environment in which the news has broken that is the cause of elation among many Spaniards. If Americans talk about stock prices or gridlock in Washington, in Spain, the latest scandal – of politicians and business elites – is the choice for chatter at dinner tables, cafes, and on the street. It’s a narrative that hasn’t stopped since Spain was thrust into economic crisis as its real estate bubble burst.
In the latest Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, released this month, Spain’s position slightly improved from the year before, putting it above Italy and Greece but below Portugal and most of the rest of western Europe.
"The improvement is of very little significance, Spain is in the same position, it's stagnant," Alejandro Salas, director for the Americas with Transparency International told the Spanish daily El Mundo. "Corruption is nothing new in Spain, it's a historical phenomenon. When the economy was going well, it was ignored, people lived with it as if it was something that didn't bother them."
"What I notice in particular about Spain is that corruption is very structural and very systematic. It doesn't belong to one party, a government, or a province. It is part of the fabric of different levels of society. The solution will require a lot of commitment and effort," he said.
As it turns out, guests for the holidays in Paris – friends from Spain – walked in the door moments after the revelation. And of course it was the first thing discussed – just after news of their almost missing their flight and getting lost in the Paris underground. It even came before talk of “El Gordo,” for which we all have tickets.
“It just feels like finally something is moving,” my husband said. “Finally."