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The Hunt for Catalonia's Graft Kingpin Gives Rajoy Election Ammo

  • Rajoy's poll lead holds as prosecutors investigate separatists
  • Magistrates seek ringleader of suspected party financing gang

After looking like they might torpedo Mariano Rajoy’s bid for a second term, nationalists in Catalonia are turning out to be more of a weapon for the Spanish prime minister.

An investigation into corruption in Spain’s biggest region is providing ammunition for Rajoy as the country heads toward a Dec. 20 election. A series of police raids on Catalan officials since the summer has quietened critics of the prime minister who said he was too soft on separatists, bolstered his poll ratings, and sowed division in Barcelona where as recently as October there was talk of declaring independence.

“People are worried about when the next set of allegations is going to hit the front pages,” Jordi Munoz, a political-science professor at Barcelona University, said in an interview. “It’s a sword of Damocles and you don’t know when it will drop.”

The investigation is focused on bribery, money laundering, dereliction of duty, illegal financing of a political party, unfair manipulation of public auctions and false documents, Spanish prosecutors said in a statement on Oct. 21.

They are trying to identify a senior figure within the Catalan nationalist movement who they suspect ran a network of corrupt officials taking kickbacks from contractors, according to an official familiar with the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.

Mas’s Troubles

While not facing any allegations himself, Catalan President Artur Mas is struggling to keep unity within the nationalist movement after he won re-election in a regional vote on Sept. 27. The anti-capitalist, pro-independence CUP party is attacking Mas over his party’s links to corruption allegations, just as some of his allies urge him to rein in the push for full autonomy.

Mas’s struggle to reach an accommodation with the radicals is helping Rajoy portray himself as the statesman holding back the forces of disorder.

“It’s hard to have cordial relations with someone who is announcing that he wants to leave Spain and that he doesn’t care about the law and doesn’t plan to obey it,” Rajoy said in an interview with the state television broadcaster Thursday.

As the tensions increase in Catalonia, the prime minister’s position is strengthened, according to Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The court cases are helping Rajoy,” Torreblanca said. “Mas tries to say that those cases are an attack on Catalonia, but it’s hard for him to use that line when the CUP is also raising the issue.”

Rajoy, whose own People’s Party this year was the subject of an investigation into campaign financing, has maintained a lead of about seven percentage points in recent polls as he bids to become the second European leader after Alexis Tsipras in Greece to hang on to power after requesting a bailout.

The latest survey by state pollster CIS put the People’s Party on 28.6 percent, the opposition Socialists on 20.8 percent and Ciudadanos, a new party led by the Catalan lawyer Albert Rivera, on 19 percent.

Convergencia Probe

The probe into the finances of Mas’s party, Convergencia, has become known in Spain as “the 3 percent case,” a reference to a comment by Pascual Maragall, Mas’s Socialist predecessor as Catalan premier, in the Barcelona parliament in 2005.

Maragall said at that time that Convergencia “has a problem and that problem is the 3 percent,” alleging there were illegal commissions to win public contracts when Convergencia was in power between 1980 and 2003.

Mas says the allegation was never proven. Officials from Convergencia say the current probe is politically motivated and designed to discredit the party.

Police are assessing evidence gathered during two raids on Convergencia’s Barcelona headquarters and searches of other city halls in Catalonia also controlled by the party. It includes papers found in a shredder, the prosecutors said in their October statement.

“This case is already making it harder for Convergencia to get support to govern,” said Jorge Trias, a former national People’s Party lawmaker. “The corruption element is making Convergencia’s situation really messy.”

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