Spain’s Rajoy ousted in no-confidence vote

MADRID — Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain lost a no-confidence vote Friday, which ousted one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders from office over a major corruption scandal within his party.

Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the main opposition Socialist Party, is set to replace Rajoy as prime minister Saturday. But with Sánchez’s party holding just 84 of the 350 seats in Parliament, his mandate could be short-lived, paving the way for another general election.

The abrupt leadership switch in Spain amplifies the political uncertainty in southern Europe, coming on the heels of the recent power struggle in Italy. The developments in Italy have rattled financial markets and resulted in a new government in which two parties with a history of antagonism toward the European Union are set to take power.


The situation in Spain is different from Italy’s populist upheaval, though, since none of Spain’s main parties contest the country’s membership of the European single currency or promise an immigration clampdown.

Rather, Rajoy’s demise is the result of a long-building corruption scandal that has tainted his conservative Popular Party and comes amid a territorial and constitutional crisis over Catalonia.

Rajoy congratulated Sánchez in his farewell address to lawmakers Friday, just before the no-confidence vote.

“It’s been an honor,” Rajoy said, adding that he had left Spain “better off than I had found it.”

“Hopefully my replacement will be able to say the same when his day comes,” he continued.

After Friday’s vote, Sánchez vowed to root out the corruption that helped bring down the government and pledged to help people affected by years of public spending cuts under his predecessor. ‘‘I'm aware of the responsibility and the complex political moment of our country,’’ he said.

Rajoy, who got his first ministerial post in 1996, survived two election defeats before finally winning the premiership in 2011, just as Spain was grappling with the European debt crisis. He led the country through a European banking bailout and faced down mass street protests against government austerity before finally leading Spain back to economic growth in late 2013.


But for the past two years, Rajoy has been at the helm of a minority government, reliant on the support of Spain’s fourth-largest political group, Ciudadanos, and attempting to fend off an independence drive in Catalonia.

Ultimately, corruption in Rajoy’s party, rather than his inability to resolve the Catalan conflict, proved his undoing.

Both the timing and the manner of his removal — in Parliament rather than in an election — were unexpected. Sánchez pounced on a court ruling last week that sentenced various business people and politicians, to prison.

The decision made the Popular Party the first Spanish political group to be convicted of operating a slush fund.

It was ordered to pay a fine of about $285,000, and the party’s former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, was sentenced to 33 years in prison and fined about $50 million. 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.

In the wake of the ruling, Sánchez demanded a parliamentary vote of no confidence, and then managed to outflank opposition to his candidacy from Ciudadanos, which wanted a snap election. To stay in office, Sánchez will need to maintain the support of the far-left Podemos party, as well as nationalist lawmakers from Catalonia and the Basque region.


Rajoy was ousted by the votes of 180 of Spain’s 350 lawmakers. As he then 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 Thursday’s government agreement in Italy.