A contentious vote in Spain’s congress approving an appointment to a top court has paved the way for an end to a long-standing political impasse, while fuelling accusations that the country’s judiciary is not fit for purpose.
On Thursday the Spanish congress voted on whether to appoint four new members of the constitutional court, the country’s highest tribunal. The posts were among many which had long been due for renewal because the two main parties, the governing Socialists and conservative Popular Party (PP), had been unable to agree on replacement candidates.
However, the parties agreed to break the deadlock by approving two candidates presented by each. In the vote, all four received the three-fifths backing of the chamber needed to be appointed, with the support of the leftist Podemos, the junior partner in the governing coalition.
But ahead of the vote, the suitability of the candidates was put under intense scrutiny, particularly one of the PP’s choices, Enrique Arnaldo, due to his political associations and implication in a string of scandals.
It has emerged that Mr Arnaldo received commissions worth nearly €1 million from PP-governed administrations while he was working as a parliamentary jurist – a practice which is prohibited. Mr Arnaldo also featured in audio recordings by the civil guard when they were investigating corruption by the PP in the Madrid region, although he was never charged.
Reports have also suggested that Mr Arnaldo helped the current PP leader, Pablo Casado, to secure the academic credits he lacked in order to secure his law degree in what appears to have been an unfeasibly short period of time.
“I don’t like some of the candidates that the Popular Party has proposed for the constitutional court,” said Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez ahead of the vote, before insisting that, despite this, the priority was “to save the agreement to renew our constitutional institutions”.
The Socialists and Podemos hope that the PP will now agree to new appointments on the judicial supervisory body, whose members were due to be replaced three years ago.
However, Mr Sánchez’s fellow Socialist Odón Elorza made clear that voting in favour of the contentious candidate would be difficult for many on the left.
“Arnaldo does not have the exemplary characteristics required,” he said. “Many of us will vote while holding our noses.”
In the end, Mr Elorza was one of a handful of Socialists and members of Podemos who defied party orders by voting against Arnaldo.
The willingness of the Socialists and Podemos to put aside their reservations about such a queried candidate has caused bewilderment among many observers.
“For a long time now, the bi-party thinking has slid towards an anything-goes attitude,” wrote three current and former Podemos MPs in an article criticising the trade-off. They warned that the media had reported in detail “who [Mr Arnaldo] is and what he has done. It has told us what he is capable of and what he will do.”
The right-wing commentator José Antonio Zarzalejos, meanwhile, described the whole affair as “a political crime”.
This episode follows several years during which the image of Spain’s judiciary has been steadily eroded by blatant politicisation. Earlier this year, the National Statistics Institute found that the justice system was the worst-rated public service in Spain, with two-thirds of respondents saying that it was unsatisfactory.
Many have warned that the pragmatism of Thursday’s vote is not just damaging for Spain’s judiciary, but for its democratic self-esteem.
“I don’t understand this idea of voting while holding your nose,” said Joaquim Bosch, spokesman of the Judges for Democracy magistrates’ association. “When the smell is unbearable, the right thing to do is to leave the room without voting…so you can work for the democratic cleansing of institutions.”