In Spain, Mariano Rajoy’s Government Veers Toward Collapse

Over two decades, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain has managed to survive election defeats as well as a Spanish banking bailout in 2012. He faces another test this week.

MADRID — Spain’s government was on the brink of collapse Thursday as opponents of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appeared to have mustered enough support to oust him in a parliamentary no-confidence vote stemming from a corruption scandal.

The choice for Mr. Rajoy was increasingly stark: jump first and resign his post, or wait to be pushed out on Friday when the Parliament was scheduled for a vote he seemed nearly certain to lose. Either outcome would mean a change of leadership for Spain and would send the country sooner or later to new elections.

The sudden turn in fortune for Mr. Rajoy, one of Europe’s longest serving prime ministers, is certain to be the next test of the stability of southern Europe, after financial markets were sent reeling by a bumpy political week in Italy, where an anti-Europe, populist government was poised to take power after an 88-day postelection impasse.

But unlike Italy, where the country’s economic stagnation under the euro has become a central issue, the issue in Spain is Mr. Rajoy himself and a long-building corruption scandal that has tainted his conservative Popular Party.

Last week, Spain’s national court sentenced more than two dozen business people and politicians — including the party’s former treasurer — on charges of operating a kickback scheme.

Afterward, Spain’s main opposition Socialist Party put forward a motion asking lawmakers to vote Mr. Rajoy from office and install a Socialist administration, ahead of another national election.

If that measure succeeds Friday, it would complete a remarkable comeback for the Socialist leader, Pedro Sánchez, and make him Spain’s new prime minister. If Mr. Rajoy resigns, it would allow his deputy prime minister to take over on an interim basis.

By midafternoon, the Basque nationalist party said that its lawmakers would support Mr. Sánchez, ensuring that a vote of no-confidence would be approved by a slim majority of the 350 lawmakers in the Spanish Parliament. The two main Catalan separatist parties were also set to vote against Mr. Rajoy.

At the start of debate on Thursday, Mr. Sánchez urged Mr. Rajoy to resign rather than getting voted out of office.

“What more needs to happen for you to understand that remaining is damaging and a burden not only for the country but also for your own party?” Mr. Sánchez said in Parliament, addressing Mr. Rajoy.

Mr. Sánchez also confirmed that a Socialist administration would maintain the budgetary plan recently approved by Mr. Rajoy’s government, which includes a generous financing deal for the Basque region, and promised to open a dialogue and “rebuild the broken bridges” with the Catalan separatist politicians with whom Mr. Rajoy has been at loggerheads for years.

Mr. Rajoy insisted Thursday morning that he had no intention of allowing Mr. Sánchez to run Spain.

“How do you plan to govern?” Mr. Rajoy asked Mr. Sánchez. “There’s no point coming here to say only that Rajoy is the biggest of all evils.”

But as it became clearer that Mr. Sánchez could sway lawmakers from smaller parties, Mr. Rajoy did not attend the afternoon session of Parliament.

Two years ago, Spain spent 10 months in political limbo after two inconclusive elections, a period that ended with Mr. Rajoy at the helm of a vulnerable minority government.

New elections could mean a replay and extend the uncertainty that has destabilized markets and the politics of southern Europe, starting with Italy.

What the two countries share are political systems that have been badly fractured by the emergence of upstart parties, by the lingering effects of the financial crisis and by waning faith in the traditional parties that have dominated politics for decades.

The only bright spot for Europe, analysts say, is that none of the main parties in Spain are challenging the European single currency, as is happening in Italy.

“Unlike the situation in Italy, the crisis of the Rajoy government and the vote of no confidence are not about the European Union or the euro,” said Bonnie N. Field, a professor of global studies at Bentley University in Massachusetts. “In this way, Spain is less of a threat to the European project than Italy.”

The reason for that has everything to do with the divergent paths the two countries took to try to get out of the euro and debt crisis from which much of Europe is only now emerging.

Italy blinked again and again at painful economic and political reforms, and its economy remains a laggard, saddled with high public debt and low growth. Mr. Rajoy on the other hand pushed through contentious austerity measures that have widened income inequality and made jobs more precarious, but have restored economic growth.

Spaniards surpassed Italians as a richer people in term of gross domestic product per capita this year for the first time in the countries’ shared history in the European Union.

On the other hand, Spain has been badly shaken by an ongoing territorial crisis over the prosperous northeastern region of Catalonia, which Mr. Rajoy blocked from seceding late last year. In fact, nationalist lawmakers from Catalonia and the Basque region could help decide his fate.

Mr. Rajoy, 63, a veteran of European politics, began serving in ministerial positions in 1996. Over the past two decades, he has managed to survive election defeats as well as a Spanish banking bailout in 2012, often by cautiously waiting for bolder rivals to fail.

Until Thursday, Mr. Rajoy’s main survival hope came from the divisions among opposition parties. His current government depends on support from a smaller, pro-business party, Ciudadanos, which was founded in Catalonia and has seen its stock rise for its strong opposition to the region’s independence drive.

Ciudadanos wanted to force Mr. Rajoy to either call a snap election or get Parliament to approve an interim administration of technocrats — rather than a Socialist government — before an election later this year.

As it became clear that the Socialists could circumvent Ciudadanos and rely instead on the support of Catalan and Basque nationalist politicians, Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, warned that the Socialists could allow separatists to destroy Spain’s unity.

“Today is a terrible day for Spain,” Mr. Rivera said.

A no-confidence vote needs approval not only by an absolute majority of lawmakers, but also agreement on a substitute prime minister.

No party has anything close to a parliamentary majority, and recent polls suggest only that Ciudadanos has an incentive to hold an election now.

A snap election would come at a fragile time for the two left-wing parties of Spain, the Socialists and Podemos, which failed to form an alternative coalition government to replace Mr. Rajoy in 2016 and then suffered from internal feuding.

Last year, Pedro Sánchez was unexpectedly re-elected to the leadership of his Socialist Party, seven months after being ousted in a party revolt and abandoning his parliamentary seat.

Last week’s verdicts in the corruption case made Mr. Rajoy’s party the first Spanish political force to be convicted of operating a slush fund and ordered to pay a fine, 245,000 euros, or about $285,000.

The party’s former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, was sentenced to 33 years in prison and fined €44 million, alongside 28 other businessmen and politicians who received over 300 years in combined prison sentences for benefiting from a kickbacks-for-contracts scheme.

Mr. Rajoy and others from his party have acknowledged the damage since then, but they have also insisted that it did not imply that fraud was committed by Spain’s current administration or the party as a whole.

But Aitor Esteban, a Basque nationalist lawmaker, insisted on Thursday that the court ruling marked a “before and after” for Mr. Rajoy and his party.

He said that his own party was “not looking to destabilize Spain” but wanted to put an end to “months of political tsunamis,” caused by repeated corruption scandals and the “incapacity to reach agreements” of the bigger national parties, led by Mr. Rajoy’s conservatives.

Mr. Esteban congratulated Mr. Sánchez on making “a good move,” but also warned him to stay true to his pledge to resolve the crisis in Catalonia.

“I trust that the dialogue that you have promised will be real,” Mr. Esteban told Mr. Sánchez.

“You will face hostilities from day one,” Mr. Esteban added. “Your government will be very complicated, weak and difficult.”

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