MADRID — Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain on Friday was swept from office following a bruising debate and a no-confidence vote in parliament, brought on by a slush-fund scandal swirling around his party.
The ouster was unprecedented in Spain’s modern democracy. The two-term, center-right Rajoy will be replaced by a leader of the opposition Socialist Workers’ Party, who argued that corruption involving the conservative governing party made Rajoy unfit to lead.
The center-left Socialists were in turn accused by Rajoy and his supporters of an opportunistic power grab.
The vote to remove Rajoy from power was 180 to 169, with one abstention. It needed 176 votes to pass.
A somber, almost penitent Rajoy appeared in parliament Friday morning and in a brief speech said, “I will accept the decision.”
He added: “It has been an honor to be the leader of Spain and to leave it in a better state than the one I found. I believe I have satisfied my responsibility, which is to improve the lives of Spaniards. If I have offended someone in my role, I ask forgiveness.”
Challenged by a 25 percent youth unemployment rate, an uprising by the breakaway Catalonia region and a deep financial crisis that threatened the solvency of the euro, Rajoy was brought down after six years in office by the scandals that have plagued his Popular Party.
Spain’s National Court last week fined the party $287,000 and handed down tough sentences to 29 businesspeople and party officials, including its former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, who received a sentence of 33 years.
The court ruled that the party benefited from the systematic use of kickbacks from contracts. The crimes included fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.
Although no sitting members of government were found to have committed any wrongdoing, Rajoy’s credibility was damaged. He had testified that there were no such slush funds.
“The facts proved in the sentence show that the president didn’t tell the truth,” Margarita Robles, a key member of the Socialist party, told parliament Friday. “It’s enough of covering up corruption. We are going to start a new stage.”
The turmoil in Spain comes as populist, anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic parties take power in Italy, and as Britain faces a decisive round of negotiations later this month to leave the European Union.
Rajoy is set to be replaced by Socialist party leader Pedro Sánchez, who probably will be sworn in over the weekend. He has promised to abide by the 2018 budget negotiated by Rajoy, and most observers do not forecast a radical change in governing.
The Sánchez government is likely to be a weak one, however. Sánchez lost two general elections for his party in 2012 and 2016. He heads a bloc of only 84 in the 350-seat parliament — the smallest representation the Socialists have had in Spain’s democracy.
Rajoy earlier charged that Sánchez and the Socialists could not win at the polls and so sought the no-confidence vote as the only path to power.
“Everybody knows that Pedro Sánchez is never going to win elections, and this is the reason for his motion and this urgency,” Rajoy said last week.
This view was echoed by a leader of Rajoy’s party in the parliament, Rafael Hernando, who charged that the ouster was all about politics, instigated by the “reckless left that doesn’t accept its defeat at the polls.”
Hernando reminded parliament of the outgoing government’s successes. “Thanks to the effort and the solidarity of all Spaniards, Mariano Rajoy’s government avoided the bailout and steered us through the crisis.” Rajoy won European Union support — and European money — for a “bailout lite” of Spanish banks in 2012, which stabilized the economy and helped bolster the euro zone as countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal were skidding into the ditch.
He was one of the longer-serving leaders in 21st-century Europe and widely seen as a staid strategist. His separatist opponents in the Catalonia region cast Rajoy as heavy-handed and too quick to deploy riot police, but his supporters saw him as a defender of Spanish unity and the constitution.
The no-confidence motion made strange bedfellows of 22 widely divergent parliamentary groups, including anti-establishment left-wing national parties, the political arm of the now-defunct armed Basque separatist group ETA, and regional Catalan nationalist parties hankering to negotiate an independent Catalan republic.
But the most notable party among those cobbled together to support the no-confidence vote was the right-leaning regional Basque party PNV, which last week secured a coveted fiscal package as a prerequisite for casting the deciding votes to approve the 2018 general budget. PNV’s decision Thursday to support Sánchez’s motion to oust Rajoy sent Spain into a frenzy as pundits and politicians realized the government was doomed to collapse.
The main party withholding its support was the business-friendly Ciudadanos, led by Albert Rivera — who leads polls as the most popular political leader. Rivera scolded Sánchez for capitalizing on the situation and not immediately calling elections.
He also warned of dangerous alliances with political groups that openly challenge the Spanish constitution and question territorial unity.
“I don’t want a corruption-plagued zombie government but neither a Frankenstein government with those who want to break Spain apart,” Rivera said.
For his part, Sánchez pledged to recover stability for the country and its institutions, address urgent issues and then call general elections. And he said he would reactivate social services and infuse new life into pensions.
But he also opened the door for dialogue with Catalonia’s independence-minded parties. Both of the regional parties that form the Catalan government and have representation in the national parliament welcomed Sánchez’s statements about seeking a political solution to the crisis, a months-long stalemate between the Spanish government and the disobedient, rebellious regional administration.
Booth reported from London.