Mariano Rajoy was unceremoniously dumped as Spain’s prime minister after losing a motion of no-confidence vote sparked by fury over corruption that has embroiled his ruling Popular Party (PP) .
The narrow result against Mr Rajoy saw him automatically replaced by Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the socialist party (PSOE), which tabled the motion after the PP’s former treasurer and a host of other former party officials were found guilty of profiting from a slush fund.
Mr Rajoy, who had forged a reputation as a great political survivor before the abrupt end to his six-and-a-half-year rule, told Congress before Friday’s vote that it had been “an honour to be prime minister and leave Spain in a better place than where I found it”.
But the conservative leader’s honour was the very thing that came under scrutiny in the confidence motion called last week after a damning verdict from High Court judges in a massive corruption trial.
In convicting 29 people on fraud, corruption and money laundering charges, including the PP’s former treasurer, the judges ruled that the party had run a slush fund over a period of almost two decades, despite Mr Rajoy testifying at the trial that this had not been the case.
“A new page in this country’s democracy has opened,” Mr Sánchez said on Friday, adding that he would work towards “social cohesion and stability” in Spain.
Since coming to power in 2011, Mr Rajoy had managed to shrug off accusations of wholesale corruption against his party and continue to win elections, albeit without a majority in 2015 and again in 2016.
Mr Rajoy’s government was recently celebrating the approval of a long-delayed state budget for 2018, which it claimed heralded the end of austerity after Spain’s severe financial crisis.
But last Friday, within 24 hours of the corruption trial verdict, the liberal Ciudadanos party announced it was withdrawing its support for Mr Rajoy’s government, urging him to call snap elections, while Mr Sánchez’s PSOE tabled its motion of no confidence.
Ciudadanos refused to support Mr Sánchez’s motion, instead suggesting an alternative vote with a neutral candidate for prime minister whose only role would be to trigger elections. Mr Sánchez, however, has said he plans to call early elections, but without stating at what point between now and 2020, when the legislature expires.
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The vote to replace Mr Rajoy with Mr Sánchez was backed by the Left-wing Podemos, the Basque Nationalist Party and the two main pro-independence forces from Catalonia. Mr Sánchez’s PSOE has just 84 seats, and will need to cobble together multi-party support for governing until new elections are held.
Mr Sánchez said he would repeal some of the PP’s most controversial legislation, such as elements of the so-called “gag law” that limit the right to demonstrate and express opinion, as well as allowing Spanish security forces to expel immigrants at the border without first identifying them.
The socialist also said he wanted to bring about effective gender equality in Spain, improve pensions and the health service, although he also promised to maintain budget stability and respect the spending limits in place for the current year.
Sanchez won the no-confidence vote with 180 votes, a slim majority in the 350-seat lower house. There were 169 no votes and one lawmaker abstained.
"It’s been an honour – there is none bigger – to have been Spain’s prime minister," Rajoy told parliament after congratulating Sanchez, with politicians from the PP giving him a standing ovation.
"Today we are signing a new page in the history of democracy in our country," Sanchez told parliament as MPs began to vote.
But PP politician 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 said.
Aitor Esteban of the Basque PNV nationalist party, whose support proved decisive for the motion’s success, said that such a minority government would be "weak and difficult, complicated."
"This is going to be a constant bing, bang, boom."
Mr Sánchez offered to seek dialogue with the pro-independence leaders of Catalonia, although he stressed that he would do so “from within constitutional bounds”.