By Graham Salter
In Madrid, the government has fallen. Mired in corruption, Mariano Rajoy has vacated the Palacio Moncloa, leaving the Socialists, under Pedro Sánchez, to assume the reins of power. How did this upheaval come about? And what does the future hold for Spain?
On Thursday, May 24th, in one of the biggest corruption scandals in modern history, Spain’s High Court Court sentenced former officials of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s right-wing Popular Party (PP) to a total of 351 years in prison. The proceedings centred on Francisco Correa, who was accused of paying bribes to party officials in return for contracts to carry out public works. The police called it “el caso Gurtel” and it proved to be a running sore for the conservative Partido Popular. The Court found that the PP had profited from an illegal kickbacks-for-contracts scheme, and confirmed the existence of a slush fund, which it described as operating in parallel to the official accounting system. Finally, and crucially, the Court expressed doubts over the credibility of the evidence given by Prime Minister Rajoy himself.
So now it became a numbers game. Prior to May 24th, the conservative (PP) government could rely on the support of at least 176 MPs, which outgunned their opponents, who could only number at best 173. On the side of the government were a moderate right-of-center party called Ciudadanos, and seven Basque MPs. To ensure the allegiance of the Basques, Rajoy promised them the investment in the Basque Country to the tune of 540 million euros, on the understanding, of course, that they would not copy the Catalans and agitate for self-government.
One can imagine Rajoy’s sense of shock and betrayal when those seven Basque MPs expressed their moral outrage at the findings of the Gurtel case by crossing the floor of Parliament and supporting a Vote of Censure against the Prime Minister. The 173 supporters of the Vote of Censure were thereby increased to 180, while on the government side, 176 minus seven left a mere 169. Rajoy was done for.
With a speed which undoubtedly surprised the rest of Europe, Spain went Socialist. The rules state that if an opposition party brings a Motion of Censure against the government, and Parliament gives its approval to the Motion, then that party automatically takes over. There is no need for elections; despite the fact that Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists only had 84 seats out of 350, they were home and dry. And on the morning of Saturday, June 2nd the front page of “El País” proclaimed “Sánchez, presidente.”
As a mere observer of developments in Spain, I have no privileged insights into what the future holds, and can only offer a couple of speculative questions, following the train of my own thoughts.
What does this mean for Catalonia? Rajoy’s intransigent response to the Catalan independence referendum was discredited by appalling incidents of police brutality, and there are reasons to believe that Sánchez will take a more conciliatory line. The Catalans have at least seventeen seats in the Spanish Parliament, and without their support, Sánchez loses his majority. Of course, he has a duty to uphold the Constitution, which forbids attempts at Catalan or Basque independence, but he is unlikely to pursue Mariano Rajoy’s punitive line against Catalan leaders like Carles Puigdemont, even if the latter is extradited from Germany.
And what does this mean for Europe? Spain has never threatened to leave the E.U., and has never seriously threatened to leave the euro, but, given the uncertainty in Italy after the success of the Cinque Stelle party, this could conceivably change. The key players here are Podemos, who have fused with I. U. (another left-wing party), and supported Sánchez’s Socialists in their Vote of Censure. Podemos gained support as a result of the Spanish Financial Crisis which spawned misery, unemployment, and austerity, at a time when corruption was known to be rife in national government, local government, and the banks. The people took to the streets, calling themselves the “indignados”, and a pony-tailed populist named Pablo Iglesias had a spectacular rise to fame and influence. When Sánchez’s investiture party is over, and he is writing his thank-you letters, he will be well advised to remember Pablo Iglesias and Podemos. When one watches Pedro Sánchez preparing to negotiate the months ahead, the image of a tightrope-walker comes to mind.
Towards the end of Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quijote” a fictitious character, befuddled by events and conflicting arguments and uncertain of the future, says simply “Paciencia, … y barajar,” “Patience, …. and shuffle the cards.” With the overthrow of Rajoy and the arrival of Sánchez, the cards have most certainly been shuffled.
Graham Salter 4th June 2018