MADRID (AFP) - Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused on Monday to resign over a corruption scandal rocking his government as it fights to rescue the euro zone's fourth-biggest economy from an economic crisis.
He batted off calls from his political opponents to step down over allegations that he received secret payments through his Popular Party when he was a government minister in the late 1990s.
Pressure intensified on Mr Rajoy, 58, when the man accused of organising the payments, the party's jailed former treasurer Luis Barcenas, on Monday went before a judge investigating the scandal following fresh allegations in the press.
"I will fulfil the mandate the Spanish people gave me," a defiant Mr Rajoy told reporters, however, vowing to "defend political stability" as he steers Spain out of a deep recession and fights to stabilise its public finances.
The grey-bearded Premier has denied any wrongdoing in the growing controversy, which first erupted in January when a newspaper published copies of account ledgers purportedly showing irregular payments to top party members.
Further leaks of supposed party accounts later implicated Mr Rajoy himself.
Mr Rajoy pointed to the commanding parliamentary majority he has enjoyed since leading the party to a landslide electoral victory in November 2011, which has enabled him to push through tough economic reforms.
The media have been speculating for weeks that Barcenas, who is in jail in a separate corruption probe, might try to pressure Mr Rajoy with the threat of fresh leaks, but the Prime Minister said he had no fear of "blackmail" and that he trusted the courts to do their job.
"The state of law will not submit to blackmail," he said on Monday, at a news conference alongside visiting Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
The noose had appeared to tighten on Mr Rajoy on Sunday when the conservative newspaper El Mundo published friendly text messages he purportedly sent to Barcenas from May 2011 to March 2013, some two months after the scandal erupted.
"Luis, I understand, be strong. I will call you tomorrow. Best wishes," said one of the messages from Mr Rajoy to Barcenas, dated January 18 when El Mundo first published allegations over the slush fund.
"It is not good to try to determine what we will say or to comment on things that must be presented to the courts, which we must all respect," read another message allegedly sent by Mr Rajoy.
On Monday, a police van delivered the 55-year-old Barcenas from his prison outside Madrid to the High Court to be quizzed by Judge Pablo Ruz as protesters outside yelled "Thieves!"
Barcenas was summoned after El Mundo last week published what it said was an original page from his handwritten slush fund ledgers.
The excerpt purportedly showed extra payments from a secret fund to party officials including Rajoy when he was a minister under then Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar in 1997, 1998 and 1999.
El Mundo predicted Barcenas would hand over to the court original documents and a USB memory storage key containing 19 years of accounts from a slush fund, allegedly financed by corporate donors who were then rewarded with public contracts.
Leading daily El Pais earlier published photocopies of the purported ledgers, in which Mr Rajoy appeared as having received a total of 25,200 euros (S$41,600) a year between 1997 and 2008.
The Popular Party has repeatedly denied the secret financing allegations.
The leader of Spain's main opposition Socialist Party, Mr Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, on Sunday accused the Premier of "serious collusion" with Barcenas.
"Given the unsustainable political situation in Spain, the Socialist Party calls for the immediate resignation of Mariano Rajoy as head of the government," he said.
The corruption allegations have outraged Spaniards, who are suffering in a recession with a record unemployment rate of more than 27 per cent.