Guest Post: How a Social Movement Changed Spanish Attitudes Toward Corruption

Today’s guest post is from Elisa Elliott Alonso, who works at the OECD Water Governance Program:

The graph below chronicles the percentage of Spanish Citizens who named the economy (grey line) and fraud/corruption (blue line) as one of the three most important problems facing the country, during the period leading up to and following the economic downturn of 2008. Unsurprisingly, after the Spanish economy crashed, some 50% of the citizens of Spain noted that the economy was one of the most important issue affecting them, and this concern remained predominant for the next three years, though it started to decline a bit after 2011. As for corruption and fraud, prior to the crash concerns about these issues hardly registered, except for a brief spike in 1993, an uptick came in the immediate aftermath of a slew of highly publicized corruption scandals, and dissipated quickly) Even after the 2008 crash, concern about corruption rose only slightly increased from 2008 to 2012. That big change came in 2013, when the news broke that important members of the conservative PP party were allegedly involved in the Gürtel case, one of the most serious recent corruption scandals to rock Spain. More interesting is the fact that Corruption has remained a top concern of Spanish citizens ever since. There’s been a bit of tapering off since concern over corruption reached its peak in late 2014, but more than 20% of Spanish citizens still list corruption as one of the country’s most serious problems, roughly the same number of name the economy.

Why is this? Or, to put the question more generally, what kind of changes need to take place within a collective society’s ethos in order to bring about engaged citizen awareness and opposition to corrupt activities?

One credible explanation, which I develop at greater length in a recent paper, is that the economic crisis—one of the worst economic crises to hit modern Europe—sparked a social movement, called the “Indignados” movement. Though the movement did not last long, it is considered by many to be the founding event of a new period, and the catalyst for a profound change in Spanish attitudes towards corruption. The Indignados movement spread a message of indignant opposition to the status quo, including society’s toleration of corruption. It’s true that Spanish concern with corruption didn’t really surge until the shocking reports about the Gürtel corruption scheme (along with roughly contemporaneous revelations regarding schemes associated with the other main opposition party), but these scandals would not have triggered the more permanent anger over corruption if there had not been an active and engaged citizenry already sensitized to the issues at hand. The Indignados movement marks a sea-change in how Spaniards think about corruption. The previous acceptance of corruption as a despicable but inevitable part of politics morphed into the view that corruption represents a serious moral degeneration of the whole political system.

Among the many demands of the Indignados movement was the establishment of effective mechanisms to ensure internal democracy in political parties, as well as the banning of the privileges enjoyed by the political elite. The movement has proposed measures such as the removal of statutes of limitations for corruption crimes, the compulsory publication of all the assets owned by elected officials, and the implementation of a legal obligation for political parties to present candidates with a clean background regarding corruption. Yet only time will tell if this collective moral awakening as regards corruption will bear any permanent fruits.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: How a Social Movement Changed Spanish Attitudes Toward Corruption

  1. Fascinating post. I wonder if another (although not mutually exclusive) explanation to the changing attitudes is that “corruption” as an issue/problem came to mean something different and something more to Spanish citizens in recent years. Rather than Spaniards merely waking up to the ills of corruption and elevating them in salience, it seems (largely through the Indignados movement) that citizens came to understand “corruption” to mean a broader set of concerns about the structure of the economy, political entrenchment, government-commercial relations, etc. And if you start consolidating other political/economic concerns under the heading of “corruption,” that term is bound to earn a greater share of the population’s focus, all else being equal. Under that logic, a major part of the explanation could be that Spanish citizens now see more concerns as falling under their umbrella conception of “corruption,” rather than them merely becoming more sensitive to corruption as an independent issue. Here again, the explanations aren’t mutually exclusive: the more you care about corruption and see it as a concern, the more you likely notice it in places it went overlooked or was characterized as a different kind of problem (e.g. political, economic). But it seems like several forces are probably doing work here.

    • I think you are totally right in your observation and I believe the widening of the definition of corruption within the Spanish mindset was one of the most obvious effects of the Indignados movement and consequent social and political unrest. In fact, in more recent years, corruption scandals have evolved from events that would not have caused as much worry in the past, such as lying on a CV or buying gifts. Due to space constraints and the complexity of the subject, the blog entry does not go into detail about the change in the perception of corruption – including the widening of the definition of corruption. However, if you´re interested in the subject you can read more about it in the full paper I wrote for the OECD anti-corruption forum here:


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