Sam Jones – The Guardian
Victory comes just two years after he was forced out as leader of socialist party over refusal to back Rajoy government
Pedro Sánchez made history on Friday by becoming the first Spanish politician to unseat a prime minister through a motion of no-confidence.
That would be remarkable enough in itself, but the socialist leader’s victory over his old foe Mariano Rajoy is extraordinary for two other reasons.
Not only is the 46-year-old former economics professor no longer an MP, it is also less than two years since he was unceremoniously defenestrated as party leader over his refusal to facilitate Rajoy’s return to office following two inconclusive general elections.
Still reeling from a string of awful results and angered by Sánchez’s hardline position on the corruption scandals engulfing Rajoy’s People’s party, half of the PSOE’s executive committee launched a coup that prompted his resignation in October 2016.
Sánchez reacted to the rebellion by giving up his seat and announcing a road trip to reconnect with disgruntled socialists across Spain. “I won’t go against my party or against my electoral promises,” he said.
“On Monday I’ll get in my car and travel all round Spain to listen to those who haven’t been listened to, to the grassroots members and left-wing voters.”
His spell in motorway cafes and the political wilderness paid off. Seven months later, he stood again for the PSOE leadership and cruised to an easy victory over his main rival Susana Díaz, the president of the PSOE stronghold of Andalucía.
Sánchez, who was born in Madrid in 1972, joined the PSOE in 1993. After studying economic and business sciences at Madrid’s Complutense university, he picked up the first of three master’s degrees at the Free University of Brussels and worked in the European parliament.
In 1999, he served as chief of staff to the UN high representative to Bosnia during the Kosovo conflict. That was followed by stints as a self-employed consultant for foreign businesses, an economic adviser to the PSOE’s federal executive committee, and five years as a Madrid city councillor.
He was an MP between 2009 and 2011, when he lost his seat and headed back to academia. In 2013, he returned to parliament and was elected PSOE leader the following year. He is married with two daughters.
On Thursday night, Sánchez stood poised to replace Rajoy as prime minister. As luck would have it, the Spanish constitution smiles on the seatless: prospective PMs need only be Spanish and over the age of 18.
Less fortunately, his time in office is likely to be turbulent. His government will probably struggle to accommodate the myriad and very different demands of the parties that backed his motion as it prepares to hold the general election he has promised.
It will also have to deal with the issue of Catalan independence, a matter routinely described as the worst political crisis to hit Spain since it returned to democracy following the death of Franco four decades ago.
Sánchez is a passionate basketball fan and player, and unlike Rajoy he is also a keen linguist who says his time abroad helped him polish up on his English and French.
He will need a good turn of speed, as well as phrase, as he becomes only the second prime minister to negotiate Spain’s new political landscape.
The emergence of the anti-austerity Podemos and the centre-right Ciudadanos has threatened 40 years of PSOE and PP rule by capitalising on the anger of Spaniards over the economic crisis and the corruption of the political classes.
Add to that the secessionist threat from Catalonia and the PP’s anger over being thrown out of government after seven years, and Sánchez’s honeymoon looks likely to be a short one. Fri 1 Jun 2018
The fall of Rajoy: how Gürtel affair defeated Spain’s great survivor
Sam Jones in Madrid
Deposed PM took his own advice and stayed strong – but in the end he was powerless
In January 2012, Mariano Rajoy texted a friend who was going through a rough patch.
“Luis, stay strong,” he wrote. “Luis, we are doing what we can.”
Luis was Luis Bárcenas, a former treasurer in Rajoy’s People’s party (PP) and the focus of persistent allegations that Spain’s ruling party was receiving illegal funding.
Rajoy’s soothing words would come back to haunt him – as would Bárcenas and his business dealings.
Last week, Spain’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, found Bárcenas guilty of crimes including fraud and money laundering, jailing him for 33 years and fining him €44m (£38.5m).
Not for nothing was the Gürtel case, as it came to be known, billed as the trial of the year. As well as juicy details ranging from Swiss bank accounts to the hiring of clowns for children’s birthday parties, the case involved several former senior PP members, including Bárcenas.
The proceedings centred on Francisco Correa, an executive with close ties to the PP who was accused of paying bribes to party officials between 1999 and 2006 in return for contracts to carry out public works and organise events. The police investigation was codenamed Gürtel, the German word for correa (“belt” in Spanish).
Bárcenas and Correa – who was handed a 51-year sentence – were among the 29 defendants convicted and jailed last week. Eight others were acquitted.
But far more damning was the court’s ruling that the PP had profited, albeit unknowingly, from the illegal kickbacks-for-contracts scheme. Not only did the judges order the party to pay a €240,000 fine, they also expressed doubts over the credibility of the testimony Rajoy had given last July when he became the first serving Spanish prime minister to give evidence in a criminal trial.
Rajoy, who was the PP’s vice-secretary general between 1990 and 2003, told the court that his duties during the period in question were exclusively political and not financial. He also dismissed suggestions that a slush fund was used to pay illegal bonuses to senior party officials as “absolutely false”.
However, in their ruling, the Audiencia Nacional judges confirmed the existence of a slush fund known as “box B”, describing it as “an accounting and finance structure that ran in parallel with the official one and which had been in use since at least 1989”.
Even for a party as steeped in corruption allegations as Rajoy’s, the reputational damage was disastrous.
The prime minister, a man famed for his powers of survival and inveterate tendency to sit back and let others make the first move, suddenly looked vulnerable. For perhaps the first time in his long political career, the 63-year-old Galician had begun to bleed.
His opponents were quick to pick up the scent. The day after the Gürtel sentences were handed down, the Spanish socialist party announced it had filed a motion of no confidence in Rajoy. The verdict in the case, said the PSOE leader, Pedro Sánchez, had “seriously damaged the health of our democracy”.
The aim of the motion, he said, was “to bring normality back to our public life and to do away with this corruption thriller into which the People’s party has plunged our politics, so that we can talk about the things that matter to our citizens”.
Rajoy’s response was blunt. He said: “This motion is bad for Spain, bad for Spaniards, brings with it too much uncertainty and is damaging to all citizens.”
For most of the past week, things appeared to be going Rajoy’s way. The centre-right Ciudadanos party refused to have anything to do with the motion, calling instead for a snap election.
But then rumours began to circulate that the small Basque Nationalist party was on the verge of supporting Sánchez’s motion, even though Rajoy had offered the region increased investment to win its backing for his recent budget. Its backing proved crucial, helping the PSOE eject Rajoy from office in Friday morning’s vote.
“It has been an honour to be the prime minister of Spain,” Rajoy told parliament as he waited for the axe to fall. “It has been an honour to leave a better Spain than the one I found.”
Even Rajoy’s critics would not deny the role he played in bringing Spain back from the brink of economic ruin. But he is likely to be remembered more for his handling of the Catalan independence crisis and for his stubborn and ultimately fatal refusal to deal with the festering issue of corruption within the PP.
Rajoy took his own advice, staying strong right up to the vote. But in the end, there was nothing he, or anyone else, could do. Fri 1 Jun 2018