European Turmoil Spreads as Spain’s Parliament Ousts Prime Minister
Posted June 1, 2018 8:09 p.m. EDT
MADRID — During more than a decade on the front line of Spanish politics, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy withstood electoral defeats, a banking bailout and mass street protests over his austerity cuts. He led Spain out of financial crisis and back to growth.
But on Friday, Rajoy became the first Spanish leader in modern history to be unseated by a parliamentary revolt. He was ousted over a corruption scandal that will leave the country with a fragile, possibly short-lived, government.
His removal was part of a broader upheaval at Europe’s core. It came on the same day that a new government led by anti-establishment, populist parties took control in Italy.
In addition, Britain is abandoning the European Union, Poland and Hungary are rolling back democracy, and the United States is waging a trade war on its European allies. The chaos ushered in by these changes has already unsettled financial markets and EU leaders in Brussels.
Rajoy had become a polarizing figure. He clung to power while both political corruption and a secessionist conflict with the wealthy and powerful region of Catalonia festered. And he scaled back civil liberties in ways that made him a lightning rod for opponents.
To some extent, the change in Spain is part of the country’s broader transition from bipartisan politics to a more complicated situation in which four parties are vying for power without any coming close to a parliamentary majority. The Socialist party, which led the parliamentary revolt, will now sit astride a shaky government.
Despite some parallels with Italy’s shake-up, the issues at the heart of Spain’s transition are markedly different. None of Spain’s main parties contest the country’s membership in the euro, Europe’s single currency, or threaten to clamp down on immigration.
Both the timing and the manner of Rajoy’s removal — through a parliamentary maneuver rather than in an election — were unexpected and point to a potentially treacherous road ahead. For better or worse, Rajoy, 63, was a familiar mainstay of Spanish politics. He got his first ministerial post in 1996 and was one of the longest-serving leaders in Europe.
He was elected as prime minister on his third attempt, in 2011, just as Spain was grappling with the European debt crisis. He then led the country through a banking bailout that helped Spain return to growth in late 2013. Since then, the country has been a shining example of Europe’s recovery.
But he made plenty of political enemies along the way. The Socialist party, headed by Pedro Sánchez, 46, pounced on a significant corruption court ruling last week that found Rajoy’s Popular Party guilty of operating a slush fund. Sánchez seized on that to force a vote of no confidence, settling an old score with his bitter political rival.
The Socialists led the parliamentary ouster of Rajoy only after they were unable to take power through the ballot box. It was the kind of backroom maneuvering Rajoy had often used to keep himself in power.
In the end, it was not Rajoy’s inability to resolve the Catalan conflict that led to his undoing. Rather, it was an old and pervasive problem that plagued Spanish politics: corruption.
The Popular Party became the first Spanish political group to be convicted of operating a slush fund. I was fined while Rajoy’s former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, was sentenced to 33 years in prison. Spain’s national court also convicted 28 other businessmen and former politicians, who received more than 300 years in combined prison sentences for benefiting from a kickbacks-for-contracts scheme.
A day after the ruling last week, Sánchez demanded the parliamentary vote of no confidence. He then managed to outflank opposition to his candidacy from Ciudadanos, the party that had allowed Rajoy to continue in office for the past two years. Ciudadanos had wanted a snap election instead.
The no-confidence vote followed a tense parliamentary debate. The turning point came Thursday afternoon when Basque nationalists agreed to join Catalan separatist lawmakers in voting against Rajoy.
That about-face came only a week after the same Basque lawmakers used their pivotal votes to approve Rajoy’s new national budget, which includes a generous financial deal for the Basques. Sánchez promised the Basques that he would keep Rajoy’s budget untouched.
Rajoy was voted out by 180 of the 350 lawmakers. As he shook hands with Sánchez, supporters of Sánchez repeatedly shouted, “Yes we can.” The Spanish stock market rose Friday alongside other European markets, which were also buoyed by news of an Italian government agreement Thursday.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, sent a congratulatory letter to Sánchez. He said he was confident Spain’s new government would “contribute in a constructive manner to a stronger, more united and fairer European Union.”
The elevation of Sánchez as prime minister caps a remarkable comeback. Last year, he was unexpectedly re-elected to the leadership of his Socialist party, seven months after being pushed out in a party revolt and abandoning his seat in parliament.
Sánchez faces an uphill struggle to keep together his unwieldy political alliance. But the Popular Party could now also struggle to agree on a substitute to Rajoy, a long-standing leader who cautiously avoided anointing his own heir.
Rajoy’s removal also ignited a feud with Ciudadanos, which wanted to force another election. During the parliamentary debate, Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, repeatedly voiced his frustration over Rajoy. Rajoy was not in parliament to listen, however, instead spending more than seven hours on Thursday in a Madrid restaurant.
Rivera also accused Sánchez of taking office through the back door without first getting elected. He said Sánchez was forming a “Frankenstein government,” reliant on far-left politicians and regional parties that want to break up Spain.
In contrast, Rajoy used his farewell address in parliament to congratulate Sánchez. He also highlighted his own contribution, saying that he would now “leave Spain better off than I had found it.” Rajoy added, “Hopefully my replacement will be able to say the same when his day comes.”
Not least among those dancing on Rajoy’s political grave were Catalonia’s separatist parties, which have been locked in a bitter struggle with the former prime minister. They held Rajoy’s administration responsible, alongside Spain’s judiciary, for jailing many of their leaders on charges of rebellion after their botched attempt to declare unilateral independence in October.
Sánchez’s takeover in Madrid coincides with the start of a new separatist administration in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, led by Quim Torra. Sánchez is expected to meet soon with Torra, whom he recently called a “racist,” in reference to past insults leveled by Torra against Spaniards and their values.
Carles Campuzano, a separatist lawmaker, told Spanish national television that his party had only endorsed Sánchez because he seemed to understand that “the Catalan question is not a legal question but one that requires listening, understanding and proposing solutions.”
Campuzano added, “We chose the least bad of the options, which was for Rajoy to leave.”
On Friday, Íñigo Errejón, a leader of the leftist Podemos party, told reporters that it was too early to predict what Sánchez could achieve with his new allies. But he said that opposition lawmakers had taught the cautious Rajoy an unlikely lesson in parliamentary tactics.
“We’ve got rid off Rajoy,” said an elated Errejón. “He was here as if he was a geological feature of our country.”