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Spanish court to rule in graft case involving ruling Socialists

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Madrid (AFP)

A Spanish court will give its verdict Tuesday in one of the biggest corruption cases in the country's modern history, involving top officials from the ruling Socialists in the Andalusia region.

The ruling, expected at noon (1100 GMT), comes as Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez struggles to secure enough support from other parties to be sworn in for another term.

His Socialist Party won a repeat general election on November 10, but once again fell short of an absolute majority in parliament.

Tuesday's judgment might not help him.

In December 2017, 21 former Socialist leaders went on trial in a court in Seville, the capital of Andalusia. This is Spain's most populous region and was for decades a stronghold of the party.

They were accused of diverting hundreds of millions of euros meant to help the unemployed and companies in difficulty in the southwestern region, in what became known as the ERE case -- the Spanish acronym for a mass-layoff plan.

Those on trial include two former heads of Andalusia's regional government, Manuel Chaves and Jose Antonio Grinan. Both men also served as ministers under former Socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez.

Grinan faces a possible jail term of six years for embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds. He could also be declared ineligible for public office for 30 years.

Prosecutors have accused Chaves of maladministration and want him declared ineligible for public office for 10 years.

In a trial that lasted a year, prosecutors said they estimated that, over a decade, members of the Andalusian administration siphoned off 741 million euros ($819 million) in public funds.

They say it was discreetly passed on to people and businesses close to the Socialist party, some of whom were not affected by layoffs -- which the funds were intended to compensate.

- Cronyism accusations -

The scandal broke in 2010, at the height of Spain's financial crisis, as Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero was introducing a slew of austerity measures that included cuts to civil servants' wages.

The affair forced Grinan to resign as head of the regional government of Andalusia, but during the trial both he and Chaves denied any fraud.

The conviction of either of these two high-profile Socialists would provide fresh ammunition for Spain's main opposition Popular Party (PP) against the Socialists' current leader Sanchez.

The PP argues the ERE case shows the Socialists resorted to cronyism, using taxpayers' money to reward supporters with jobs and benefits in a bid to maintain their decades-long grip on the region.

The Socialists lost control of the Andalusia regional government in January after 36 years in office, to a coalition of the PP and the market-friendly Ciudadanos.

That same election saw the electoral breakthrough of the far-right party Vox, which won its first seats.

Spain has seen repeated corruption scandals in recent years that have exposed politicians, trade unions, bankers, footballers and even members of the royal family.

Sanchez himself came to power in June 2018 after ousting his predecessor Mariano Rajoy of the PP in a confidence vote triggered by a court ruling that the PP had profited from a kickbacks-for-contracts scheme.

The string of revelations have eroded Spaniards' faith in their institutions and elites. Polls show corruption is a major concern for Spaniards.

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