Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was toppled by a corruption scandal Friday, becoming the first leader in Spain’s modern democracy to lose a vote of no confidence in Parliament.
The demise of Rajoy — one of Europe’s longest-serving political leaders — paves the way for Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the main opposition socialist party, to become Prime Minister.
Friday’s vote in Madrid was the culmination of years of corruption allegations against Rajoy’s Popular Party. The scandal came to a head last week when a court convicted his former aides of running slush funds to help finance Popular Party election campaigns, prompting Sánchez to file the confidence motion.
The fall of Rajoy’s government comes at a time of wider political turmoil in Europe. Two populist parties in Italy have just reached an agreement to form a coalition government after months of wrangling, Brexit dominates UK politics and the European Union must now contend with a looming trade war with the US.
Spain’s political tumult is born of a long-running corruption scandal coupled with internal division. Although still feeling the effects of the global economic crisis, Spain’s economy is performing better than that of Italy, and anti-European sentiment played no part in its change of government.
Nonetheless, Sánchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), faces significant challenges as he assumes office. Spain was riven last year by the Catalan independence crisis, which remains unresolved.
Rajoy’s fate was sealed after the Socialists secured support for the no-confidence motion Thursday from a number of smaller parties in Parliament, including the Basque Nationalist Party.
In total, 180 of the chamber’s 350 lawmakers voted in support of the motion, a clear majority. There were 169 votes against and one abstention. It was the first time in Spain’s post-1977 democracy that a Spanish Prime Minister has fallen in this way.
Ana Pastor, President of the lower house of the Spanish Parliament, announced that Sánchez has “the trust of the Parliament” and so becomes the new Prime Minister of Spain. In line with the constitution, she will meet with Spain’s King Felipe II on Friday afternoon to inform him of the vote’s outcome.
Sánchez received a standing ovation, with parliamentarians shouting: “Yes, it can be done.”
Rajoy shook hands with Sánchez, his 46-year-old successor, to congratulate him.
Sánchez — a pro-European economics professor who was a keen basketball player in his youth — previously said that he would call for snap elections should he become Prime Minister.
He is expected to take office and nominate his Cabinet next week.
Sánchez became the leader of the Socialist party in 2014, when the photogenic then-42-year-old was thought of as the new young and “handsome” face of politics.
But in 2016 his party performed poorly in elections and was unable to assemble a coalition government to keep Rajoy out of power. That didn’t sit well with some people in his party and in October of that year he resigned under pressure.
Sánchez then presented himself as a candidate for the primaries and won comfortably in 2017, proof that he remained popular with socialists in Spain.
However, critics have accused him of wanting the office of Prime Minister whatever the price. He will now govern in coalition with pro-independence parties, having needed their support to push through the confidence motion. Since his party holds only 84 seats in Parliament, Sánchez will need to keep those parties, with their differing agendas, on his side if he is to govern.
He has previously said he would stick to the budget recently passed by Rajoy’s government and continue to enact socioeconomic reforms.
Rajoy: ‘A better Spain’
Rajoy had effectively conceded defeat ahead of the vote, congratulating Sánchez on his expected win in a brief address to Parliament.
“In light of what we all know, I presume that the vote of no confidence will go ahead, and Pedro Sánchez will become the Prime Minister and I want to be the first to congratulate him,” Rajoy said.
“I will accept the result of the vote as the democrat I am, but I cannot agree with what has been done.”
Visibly moved as he gave what was to be his last address as Spain’s leader, Rajoy also thanked those in his party and the Spanish people. “It has been an honor to be the Prime Minister of Spain. It has been an honor to leave a better Spain than I found,” he said.
“I wish my substitute could say the same when his day comes, for the good of Spain.”
Before Rajoy’s arrival, Rafael Hernando, spokesman for the Popular Party in Parliament, asked Sánchez to withdraw the vote of no confidence, saying that he was proud of Rajoy as Prime Minister. “He is an honest man who has worked tirelessly to rebuild a country that the PSOE left devastated,” he said.
However, Margarita Robles, spokeswoman for the PSOE in Parliament, said: “Spain does not deserve a Prime Minister who is not here and who lies in the courts of justice to cover corruption.”
Party ‘hounded by corruption’
Rajoy’s Popular Party has been plagued with corruption allegations for years. Rajoy has faced the humiliation of testifying in cases against members of his party, though he has not been among the accused.
The confidence motion was filed by Sánchez after a court convicted Rajoy’s former aides of running slush funds to help finance Popular Party election campaigns. The court also questioned the credibility of Rajoy’s testimony during the proceedings.
It was the first time in Spain that a party had been convicted and fined on corruption-related charges.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, tweeted his congratulations to Sánchez. “I trust that the Spanish government will continue contributing in a constructive way for a Europe that is stronger, more united and fairer,” he said, adding that Spain “plays a very important role” in the European project.
The Party of European Socialists, made up of parties from across the European Union, welcomed Sánchez’s election, saying his government would form a “credible alternative to a conservative government hounded by corruption.”
PES president Sergei Stanishev described Sánchez as “a progressive and honest pro-European” who would “shift away from the austerity policies of the past years in his country.”