Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is poised to be ousted from office after a Basque party on Thursday gave its decisive support to a no-confidence motion over a corruption case, making it all but certain to succeed.
Bar any last minute u-turns, this will be the first time since Spain transitioned back to democracy after the 1975 death of Francisco Franco that a prime minister is toppled by a vote of no-confidence.
In parliament, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) said its five lawmakers would vote against Rajoy, who was conspicuously absent from the lower house, with just a bag placed on his seat, after earlier launching a staunch defence against the motion scheduled for Friday.
This gives the main opposition Socialist party, which filed the motion, the absolute majority of 176 votes needed for it to pass.
- Corruption fatigue -
It will also put paid to the 63-year-old's rollercoaster time as prime minister that saw him come to power in 2011 and implement drastic spending cuts before winning elections again in 2015 and 2016, though without the absolute majority he had in 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.
His term in office was also marked by a series of corruption scandals involving former members of his Popular Party (PP).
That prompted the no-confidence motion, which was filed last week 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 euros ($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, prompting calls for him to resign.
In its ruling, the court said the credibility of Rajoy's testimony "should be questioned".
- 'Party is over' -
Earlier on Thursday, Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez demanded Rajoy step down, arguing he had lost credibility after the court ruling, though the PP's number two Maria Dolores de Cospedal later ruled out his resignation before the vote.
"Your isolation, Mr. Rajoy, is the epitaph of a political period, yours, which is over," the 46-year-old former economics professor said in parliament.
In a bid to secure the PNV's support, Sanchez vowed to stick to Rajoy's 2018 budget, which included concessions to the Basque Country and an increase in pensions demanded by the tiny party.
The PNV, which governs the northern Basque Country with the Socialists, gave Rajoy the crucial backing he needed to pass the budget earlier this month.
The Socialists, who hold 84 of the parliament's 350 seats, also have the support of anti-establishment party Podemos and a string of regional parties, including two Catalan separatist groupings.
"The party is over," said Joan Baldovi, a representative of tiny regional party Compromis, an ally of Podemos.
Sanchez has pledged to call a fresh election if the motion succeeds but only after governing long enough to restore "institutional stability".
- 'Moral authority' -
Bar any change, Rajoy will become the first Spanish premier to lose a no-confidence vote.
There have been three other such votes since Spain returned to democracy following the death of long-time dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, including one against Rajoy last year.
During Thursday's debate, Rajoy said the corruption case "does not concern members of the government" and repeated the PP'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, before accusing Sanchez of "opportunism at the service of personal ambition".
Rajoy also hit back by listing the many graft cases involving the Socialists over the years.
"Are you Mother Teresa of Calcutta? With what moral authority do you speak?" he asked Sanchez.
The Socialists filed the no-confidence motion against PM Mariano Rajoy last week after a court said it had uncovered a bribery scheme involving former officials of his party
Composition of the Spanish parliament