Opposition leader wins vote to replace Mariano Rajoy as prime minister, in the first ousting of a serving Spanish leader by Parliament in four decades of democracy.
Spain’s parliament on Friday ousted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote sparked by fury over his party’s corruption woes, with his Socialist (PSOE) rival Pedro Sánchez taking over.
An absolute majority of 180 lawmakers voted for the motion to loud applause and shouts of “Yes we can.” Sánchez, however, faces a tough road ahead as he will govern with an even smaller minority than Rajoy.
The veteran bespectacled 63-year-old leader got up and shook hands with Sánchez before leaving the lower house without a word.
Rajoy had already admitted defeat minutes before the vote, knowing that an absolute majority of lawmakers as diverse as Catalan separatists and Basque nationalists had pledged their support for the no-confidence motion. According to reports in Spanish and British media outlets, Rajoy skipped part of the debate to enjoy an eight-hour lunch at a restaurant in Madrid.
“It’s been an honour – there is none bigger – to have been Spain’s prime minister,” he told Parliament, saying he had “left Spain better than I found it.” Lawmakers from his conservative Popular Party (PP) responded by giving him a standing ovation.
Sánchez, Spain’s 46-year-old opposition leader, instigated the no-confidence motion last week after a court confirmed that a vast system of bribes given to former PP officials in exchange for lucrative public contracts was implemented between 1999-2005. After years of anger over the scandals tainting the PP, corruption finally got the better of the party and sealed Rajoy’s downfall.
“Today we are signing a new page in the history of democracy in our country,” Sánchez told Parliament prior to the vote.
But PP lawmaker Rafael Hernando told him he would be entering the prime minister’s office “through the back door” after failing to win 2015 and 2016 general elections.
“For the first time we may get a prime minister who didn’t win elections,” he retorted.
Sánchez could be sworn in by King Felipe VI as early as Saturday and will appoint his Cabinet over the coming days. To prevent a power vacuum after a no-confidence motion, Spanish law makes the motion’s author — in this case, Sánchez — the country’s new leader as soon as the king swears him in.
The Madrid stock exchange was up two percent after Sánchez won the vote and earned a standing ovation from his party’s lawmakers.
The 46-year-old takes the helm of the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy at a time when the European Union has to resolve numerous problems, including Britain’s impending departure from the bloc and political tensions over the tens of thousands of migrants who are still entering the continent from North Africa.
The incoming prime minister says his priorities will be social issues — including more measures to help young people and the elderly. He told reporters Friday that he was “aware of the responsibility and the complex political moment of our country” and vowed to address the “social emergencies” of the country’s citizens after years of austerity measures.
On the domestic front, Sanchez will head a minority government that will need to negotiate potentially difficult deals with other parties to get its legislation passed. In order to push through the no-confidence motion, the Socialists, who hold just 84 of Parliament’s 350 seats, had to cosy up to parties they had previously clashed with, like Catalan separatists and the left-wing anti-establishment Podemos. As such, even if he has pledged to govern long enough to restore “institutional stability” before calling early elections, Sánchez’s new government will likely be highly unstable.
Podemos, led by political scientist Pablo Iglesias, has already asked to be part of his new government.
Aitor Esteban of the Basque PNV nationalist party, whose support proved decisive for the motion’s success, on Thursday warned that such a minority government would be “weak and difficult, complicated.”
“This is going to be a constant bing, bang, boom.”
A SCANDAL TOO FAR
Although Rajoy survived a similar noconfidence vote last year, Friday’s ballot draws a line under his rollercoaster time in office which began in 2011 and saw him implementing drastic spending cuts before winning re-election in 2015 and 2016. Despite winning the last two polls, he lacked the absolute majority of his first term.
Rajoy put Spain back onto the path of growth after a devastating economic crisis although unemployment remains high, jobs precarious and many complain inequalities have risen. His term in office was also marred by a series of corruption scandals involving former PP members.
Last week the National Court, which deals with major criminal cases, sentenced 29 people with links to the PP, including a former treasurer, to a total of 351 years in jail. It also ordered the party to pay back 245,000 euros ($290,000) received from the scheme to help finance election campaigns.
Rajoy became Spain’s first sitting prime minister to give evidence at trial when he was called as a witness in the case last year. In its ruling, the court said the credibility of Rajoy’s testimony “should be questioned.”
Mari Ángeles Suárez, a 65-year-old pensioner, said she had come to Parliament with her husband to witness Rajoy’s demise. “We needed Rajoy to leave his party now, with all the corruption it’s accumulated, and we needed change now,” she said.
During Thursday’s pre-vote debate, Rajoy said the corruption case “does not concern members of the government” and repeated the party’s argument that only a tiny number of its politicians have been tainted by corruption. He also hit back by listing the many graft cases involving the Socialists over the years.
“Are you Mother Teresa of Calcutta? With what moral authority do you speak?” he told Sánchez.
The Socialist leader, who will be Spain’s seventh prime minister since the country’s return to democracy in the late 1970s, arrives in power after a spectacular turnaround in his political fortunes. He was ousted by his own party in 2016 over back-to-back losses in general elections and after he tried to block Rajoy’s bid to form a government.The former economics professor and career politician regained the Socialists’ leadership last year.
Speaking yesterday, he vowed to build consensus among political parties to “transform and modernise” Spain.
One of his first challenges will be Catalonia. A new Catalan Cabinet is scheduled to regain the prosperous region’s self-government on Saturday, ending a seven-month takeover by central authorities in Madrid over the separatists bid to secede from Spain.
In a reversal from Rajoy’s aversion to Catalonia’s aspirations for greater autonomy, Sánchez has promised to open a dialogue with new Catalan President Quim Torra despite having called the separatist’s comments “xenophobic.”
In other challenges, the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) party — which has been leading recent opinion polls — is demanding an early election and is vowing fierce opposition.