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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Spanish opposition builds support to oust Rajoy

Support ebbs away for veteran Spanish leader Mariano Rajoy as socialists seek to replace conservative rule

Members of the People's Party parliamentary group applaud Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy during a debate on a no-confidence motion tabled by socialist party in the lower house of the Spanish Parliament in Madrid on May 31, 2018. Oscar del Pozo / AFP
Members of the People's Party parliamentary group applaud Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy during a debate on a no-confidence motion tabled by socialist party in the lower house of the Spanish Parliament in Madrid on May 31, 2018. Oscar del Pozo / AFP

Mariano Rajoy, the long-serving Spanish prime minister, was expected to be forced from power on Thursday night after parties across the political divide lined up to support a motion of no confidence.

With the numbers in parliament stacked against him, two paths were open to the 63-year-old conservative.

By resigning before the vote, Mr Rajoy could hand over to a member of his own party.

By staying on and facing a vote of no confidence, Mr Rajoy would risk losing, only to be replaced by Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the socialist opposition.

Observers said Mr Sanchez appeared to have secured 180 votes, which would see him installed as prime minister. If the vote goes ahead on Friday as scheduled, Mr Sanchez would need absolute majority of 176 votes.

“Are you ready to resign? Resign today and leave by your own will," Mr Sanchez told Mr Rajoy during bitter exchanges in the Spanish parliament. "You are part of the past, of a chapter the country is about to close.”

Mr Rajoy has come under pressure after the National Court convicted former aides from his right-wing People’s Party of running a corruption racket during his time as party leader.

Former treasurer Luis Barcenas was convicted of receiving bribes, money laundering and tax crimes. The case centred on a secret campaign fund the People's Party ran from 1999 until 2005.

However Mr Rajoy said the opposition was misrepresenting the judgment, claiming his party was found to have civil liability for the kickback scheme but not criminal responsibility. In effect he pleaded that both main parties suffered from corruption.

“You should not lie in parliament,” he said. “There is corruption everywhere as you well know.”

The opposition has the support of the anti-establishment grouping Podemos and the Catalan nationalist factions. The key blows to Mr Rajoy came when the Basque Nationalists and a single law maker from the Canaries came out against him.

Mr Rajoy’s enduring presence at the heart of Spanish politics once prompted Angela Merkel to observe that he had “the hide of an elephant”.

He survived the setback of losing the 2004 general election following the Madrid bombings, which as then interior minister he was widely seen to have mishandled. As opposition leader he lost again in 2008 but gained power in the wake of the eurozone financial crisis in 2011.

Shares on the Spanish exchange fell on Thursday and the developments added to tensions that surround the eurozone and its debt amid a protracted struggle for power in Italy.

Ana Botin, chairman of Banco Santander, the country’s biggest banking outfit, warned of a “certain concern” over the showdown in parliament.

She called on political leaders to reduce uncertainty, saying that foreign investors “have bet on Spain” but “there is starting to be a certain concern about whether trends in Spain may change”.

One party not joining the vote against Mr Rajoy’s leadership is the country’s most popular political force. The pro-business Ciudadanos (Citizens) party and its leader Albert Rivera is riding a wave of popularity after pressing Mr Rajoy for a more aggressive approach in crushing the Catalan separatist challenge. Mr Rivera has refused to support Mr Sanchez because he wants a snap election as soon as possible.

The prospect of an election won by Ciudadanos, which favours more central control of Spain's self-governed regions, could ultimately backfire on the regional nationalist parties.

But their decision means that for Mr Rajoy the options that would allow him to cling on had evaporated by the time he left the debating chamber on Thursday afternoon.