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Immunity Causes Political Disease

“You’ll see what I’m made of!” The headline is on the second page of El Pais and the main article of the world news section of El Heraldo, a juicy line from Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister. The cause of his outrage: the Italian government has eliminated the law giving politicians immunity in case of misdemeanors and minor crimes. Berlusconi will now have to appear in court and face the corruption charges that have been gathering around him for a few years.

When I first read the article in Spanish, of course, I thought its meaning must have eluded me. I asked my host mother for clarification: what exactly had happened that made Berlusconi mad?

“The Italian parliament rescinded his political immunity,” she said matter-of-factly. “Berlusconi’s lawyer is going to argue that the change was unconstitutional.”

“Politicians in Italy can do anything they like without being tried in a court?” I asked incredulously, adding, “well, they could?”

“Yes, and I’m pretty sure it exists in Spain too, unfortunately,” she said, “but I’m not sure. Ask your political science teacher tomorrow.”

Intrigued, I did. And he explained that Spain does indeed have a law protecting politicians from lawsuits during their terms in office.
The law has a reasonable root: in the past, if a king or dictator didn’t like a particular representative, the higher power could simply charge him with a misdemeanor and cart him off to jail. The protection originally guaranteed that politicians could contradict or criticize important and powerful figures and still serve their entire term without fear of reprisals.

The current law stipulates that politicians cannot be charged while holding office, and in the case of a charge after office, the only court that can hold the hearing is the Tribunal Supremo, the equivalent of the Supreme Court.

Recently, a handful of governors and a mayor in Valencia have been accused of corruption. A few of them left their party, the Partido Popular (PP), of their own accord, and others were expelled by the party president. However, all still hold their posts; they’ve just switched to a minor party to make clear that they are the guilty ones, not the PP.

Valencia’s assembly is tinged by corruption, and Berlusconi is outraged in Italy (but the Italian people are even madder). And I’m still confused about how such an outdated law persists in a country as modern as Spain.

True, Franco’s dictatorship ended just 34 years ago, and Spain’s constitution is only that old. The law would function should the politicians comport themselves lawfully.

However, the news of the last week has proven that, unfortunately, some representatives do not deserve such trust. The law allows corruption to occur without penalty, condoning crime. Representatives have special privileges, raising them above the laws that govern the people who elected them. This originally democratic law has now become abused.

In the United States, politicians resign in the wake of affairs and adultery, personal life problems that, to me, have nothing to do with representing the people. Here, even corruption cannot force a governor out of office.

Something as grand as Berlusconi’s massive corruption (not to mention his abysmal personal behavior, widely publicized here in Spain) is what it took for Italy to realize the harm of giving representatives special privileges; what will it take in Spain?

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