Madrid: Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy admitted defeat on Friday ahead of a no-confidence vote which was certain to topple him, paving the way for a takeover by opposition leader Pedro Sanchez, his arch rival.
"It's been an honour — there is none bigger — to have been Spain's prime minister," he told parliament after congratulating Sanchez, with lawmakers from his conservative Popular Party (PP) giving him a standing ovation.
Barring any last-minute U-turn, an absolute majority of lawmakers, among them Catalan separatists and Basque nationalists, will vote through a no-confidence motion filed last week by the Socialists following a corruption scandal involving the PP.
"Today we are signing a new page in the history of democracy in our country," Sanchez told parliament where MPs were to begin voting. But PP lawmaker Rafael Hernando told him he would be entering the prime minister's office "through the back door" after failing to win the vote in 2015 and 2016.
"For the first time we may get a prime minister who didn't win elections," he retorted.
In order to push through the no-confidence motion, the Socialists, who hold just 84 of the parliament's 350 seats, have had to cosy up to parties they have previously clashed with, like Catalan separatists and the anti-establishment Podemos.
As such, even if he has pledged to govern long enough to restore "institutional stability," Sanchez's new government will likely be highly unstable.
Aitor Esteban of the Basque PNV nationalist party, whose support proved decisive for the motion's success, said yesterday such a minority government would be "weak and difficult, complicated." "This is going to be a constant bing, bang, boom."
Rajoy is set to become the first Spanish premier to lose a no-confidence vote since the country transitioned to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
Although Rajoy survived a similar vote last year, today's ballot will draw a line under the 63-year-old's rollercoaster time in office which began in 2011 and saw him implementing drastic spending cuts before winning re-election in 2015 and 2016.
Despite winning the last two votes, he lacked the absolute majority of his first term.
He put Spain back onto the path of growth after a devastating economic crisis although unemployment remains sky-high, jobs precarious and many complain inequalities have risen.
But his term in office was also marred by a series of corruption scandals involving former PP members.
And it was another graft scandal that prompted the Socialists to table the no-confidence motion after a court said it had uncovered a vast system of bribes given to former PP officials in exchange for lucrative public contracts between 1999 and 2005.
The National Court, which deals with major criminal cases, sentenced 29 people with links to the PP, including a former treasurer, to jail. It also ordered the party to pay back € 245,000 ($290,000) received from the scheme to help finance election campaigns.
Rajoy became Spain's first sitting prime minister to give evidence in a trial when he was called as a witness last year. In its ruling, the court said the credibility of Rajoy's testimony "should be questioned".
During yesterday's debate, Rajoy said the corruption case "does not concern members of the government" and repeated the party's argument that only a tiny number of its politicians have been tainted by corruption.
"The PP has had corrupt people, I acknowledge it but the PP is not a corrupt party," he said, hitting back at the Socialists, who have also been tainted by scandal over the years.
"Are you Mother Teresa of Calcutta? With what moral authority do you speak?" he told Sanchez.
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Updated Date: Jun 01, 2018 17:43:24 IST