High-profile corruption scandals are rocking European politics


LISBON, Portugal — It seems hardly a day goes by without a new revelation of suspected corruption in high places undermining trust in southern Europe's politicians.

On Tuesday, Italians learned that Gianni Alemanno, former mayor of Rome and onetime minister under conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, was among several politicians under investigation for ties to the Mafia after police raided private homes and local government offices.

On Monday, a powerful regional powerbroker in Spain's ruling Popular Party started a four-year sentence for tax fraud.

Last week, Spain's Health Minister Ana Mato resigned after receiving a court summons in connection with a vast bribes-for-contracts scandal that's already resulted in the arrests of 200 people, including many local officials from the conservative PP.

Portugal is still in shock over the events surrounding Jose Socrates, Socialist prime minister from 2005-2011, who remains in jail almost two weeks after his dramatic detention at Lisbon's airport on charges of corruption, tax evasion and money laundering.

His arrest came just days after police picked up the head of Portugal's immigration service and several other senior civil servants, all implicated in an unrelated scandal involving the granting of visas to rich Chinese businessmen.

On Friday, Duarte Lima, a former parliamentary leader of Portugal's governing center-right Social Democratic Party, was handed a 10-year sentence for fraud and money laundering.

The evidence that so many leaders seem to be living the high life by evading taxes or pocketing kickbacks isn’t going down well with voters, particularly in countries where years of euro zone debt crisis have forced cuts in public services, left millions unemployed, dragged down wages and eroded living standards.

"These cases just go to prove what we all know: The politicians aren't there to serve the people, they are just looking out for themselves," says electrician Joao Policiano. "Unfortunately, this corruption exists and now we can all see it."

Seeking the extremes

Not surprisingly, the toxic mix of austerity and corruption is fueling a kick-the-bums-out sentiment at the ballot boxes. New anti-establishment parties have been riding high on the discontent.

Some polls show the brand-new leftist movement Podemos, or We Can, is now Spain's most popular party.

Podemos' Greek ally, the Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA, is doing even better in a country where there's deep anger over the fact that just one minister has been jailed for corruption despite the widespread belief that much of the old political class had its hands in the pork barrel as they led the country to the brink of economic collapse.

In a reflection of the discontent, voters there have even turned to Nazi-inspired far-rightists.

Railing against establishment corruption helped Italy's maverick Five-Star Movement emerge as the second single party in elections last year.

In France, corruption and cronyism scandals involving members of President Francois Hollande's Socialist government and the center-right party of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy have played into the hands of the far-right National Front.

"There is an ethical and moral delinquency in French political life," the front's leader Marine Le Pen said last month. "One day it's those close to Mr. Hollande, the next it's those close to Mr. Sarkozy — or Sarkozy himself — hasn't the time come for a big clean hands operation?"

Polls suggest Le Pen could beat either Hollande or Sarkozy in the first round of presidential elections scheduled for 2017.

So far, Portugal has been an exception in the slide to political extremes. Despite being one of the countries hardest hit by the euro zone crisis, voters here have continued to stick to mainstream parties.

"There's less of a radical politicization of these cases here," says Antonio Costa Pinto of Lisbon University's Social Science Institute.

"We've got a party system that's less polarized than in Spain or elsewhere, so the political parties don't make such a big deal of these issues," he adds. "Rather than support for populist parties, people's distrust finds an outlet in abstention."

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A far-left party, the Left Bloc, founded in 1999, has actually seen its support decline during the economic crisis. Support for the old-school Portuguese Communist Party fluctuates but rarely tops 10 percent.

According to an opinion poll published just ahead of Socrates' arrest — but amid a furor over the investigation into corruption at the immigration service and an ongoing probe into financial irregularities that led to the collapse of the country's largest private bank — the center-right government and Socialist opposition were seen winning a combined 74 percent of the vote.

That's down 6 points from the last election before the economic crisis in 2006, but nothing like the collapse in support for mainstream parties in Greece. There, the center-right and center-left parties that have traditionally dominated politics currently poll a combined 33 percent — from 80 percent before the crisis.

In Spain, the Popular Party and opposition Socialists are polling around 47 percent combined, almost half of what they got in elections in 2008.

It's unclear if the Socrates case will make a difference in Portugal.

The former PM, who denies the charges against him, dropped out of politics after losing elections three years ago.

The man whose silver-fox looks drew comparisons with George Clooney when he held the presidency of the European Union in 2007 moved to Paris, where he shacked up in a $4 million apartment.

Although he remained a prominent figure, notably as a TV commentator, his party's current leadership may be able to distance itself from the scandal.

In Spain, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy faces more trouble extracting the PP from the scandal that has engulfed dozens of party officials.

Spain's main opposition Socialists have problems of their own. A number of party bigwigs are under investigation over allegations funds were misappropriated from a fund designated to help laid off workers.

Rajoy was forced to defend the whole political class last week.

"There is no generalized corruption,” he told parliament in Madrid. "I cannot accept seeing the suspicion of corruption applied to all politicians. I can understand citizens’ irritation and mistrust, but that doesn't justify casting a general shadow of doubt."

Even the Catalan nationalists who have used corruption in Spain to justify a bid for their region’s independence have fallen under that shadow.

Their historic leader Jordi Pujol has admitted stashing large sums away in secret overseas bank accounts. Investigations are continuing into the finances of the man who ran Catalonia's regional government for 23 years up to 2003.

All this is potentially rich picking for Podemos, which polls currently show beating both mainstream parties.

Measures of discontent

However, voters can have a short memory when it comes to corruption.

Sarkozy was reelected as leader of his party in France last weekend despite a number of cases still hanging over him.

His main center-right rival to run for president in 2017, former Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, was convicted of misusing public funds and handed an 18-month suspended sentence in 2004.

Both are expected to beat Le Pen if they face her in a second-round run-off election, according to latest opinion polls. Le Pen isn’t immune to allegations of dodgy financial deals — she's having to explain media revelations that her party received millions in Russian funding.

Italian voters have frequently forgiven politicians with murky finances, the best-known recent example being three-time Prime Minister Berlusconi.

The far-right Northern League Party is currently enjoying a popularity surge in Italy two years after its support imploded amid an embezzlement scandal involving its then-leadership.

Spain and Portugal are both due to hold parliamentary elections next year. There's also expectation the Greek and Italian governments may be forced into early votes.

They will provide the real measure of voter discontent over the mix of graft and austerity economics.

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