Spanish state: How and why the Rajoy government fell


Spain’s incoming Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (left) shaking hand with the outgoing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy

On June 1, the Spanish government of the ruling People’s Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy fell to a no-confidence motion brought against it in the 350-seat Spanish congress by the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), led by its federal secretary Pedro Sánchez.

The vote was 180 to 169 with one abstention. This result installed Sánchez as the new prime minister of Spain. It was the first time since a multiparty-system replaced the Francisco Franco dictatorship 40 years ago that a no-confidence motion has succeeded.

Key to the final result was the decision of the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), governing the Basque Autonomous Community (Euskadi), to support the PSOE motion. Without its five votes the motion would have been lost because an absolute majority of 176 was needed for its adoption. Previously, the two Catalan nationalist parties with a presence in the Congress — the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the conservative nationalist Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat) — had flagged their support.

The breakdown of the vote was: in favour, PSOE (84), Unidos Podemos and associated alliances in Galicia and Catalonia (67), ERC (9), PDECat (8), PNV (5), the Valencian regionalist force Compromís (4), the Basque left-nationalist alliance Bildu (2) and the Canary Islands regionalist grouping New Canaries (1).

Against were all the forces of the right: the PP (134), Citizens (32), the Union of the People of Navarra (2) and Forum Asturias (1), with the Canary Coalition the only abstention.

For the first time since the Rajoy government was formed on November 4, 2016, this parliamentary majority—the PSOE, Unidos Podemos and the alliances associated with it, plus the four Catalan and Basque nationalist parties—united in a decisive vote. Up until his removal, Rajoy had managed to survive by dividing and ruling this unstable bloc—chiefly by enlisting the PSOE against the Catalan right to self-determination and in favour of the repression of the October 1 Catalan referendum and the legal persecution of the Catalan leaders responsible for it.

The most recent example of Rajoy’s success in keeping the opposition parties divided had come only nine days earlier, on May 22, when he seduced the PNV into supporting his government’s 2018 budget and into breaking its promise not to do so while Catalan self-rule remained suspended under article 155 of the Spanish Constitution.

The price of that seduction of the PNV was an increase in pension rates, their indexing to the consumer price index, a €540 million boost to infrastructure funding for Euskadi and a promise to conduct discussions with the new Catalan government led by president Quim Torra.

The Gürtel scandal bombshell

On May 24, Rajoy was wearing an expression of satisfaction in the Spanish congress. After the passing of his budget, Spain’s prime minister seemed to be facing two more years in office during which to hopefully counter the rise of the more-patriotic-than-thou Citizens and to wear down the Catalan independence challenge.

Less than 24 hours later the look on Rajoy’s face had turned into one of high irritation marked by flashes of panic. On the afternoon of his budget victory, the judges of the National High Court had released their decision in the Gürtel corruption case and by the next day the PSOE had lodged its no-confidence motion, based on the argument that the PP’s involvement in that corruption made it unfit to rule any longer. The congress’s speakership panel, with a PP and Citizens’ majority, immediately voted for the motion to be heard as quickly as possible, hoping in this way to give the PSOE minimum time to organise support.

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