At the beginning of June Mariano Rajoy was forced to step down as Spanish Prime Minister after a dramatic week in which a long-running corruption scandal involving the conservative Partido Popular finally claimed him as a political victim.
How did this happen? An article in El País on 9 May highlights how the Spanish political landscape is shifting, with support ebbing away from the two mainstays of the old bipartisan system, the Partido Popular on the right and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español on the left. In “El bipartidismo desciende hasta los peores resultados de su historia” the paper reported on a recent poll of voter intentions which put the joint standing of the two parties at a historic low of 46%. The main loser at that point was the PP, suffering the fallout from the continued crisis in Catalonia and a scandal over a Masters degree of dubious standing handed out to a prominent PP politician in Madrid, but the poll also signalled declining support for the PSOE and a lack of public confidence both in Mariano Rajoy and in Pedro Sánchez, whose honeymoon period after his own dramatic re-establishment as leader of the PSOE was, the paper concluded, definitely over. The PSOE’s rival on the left, Unidos Podemos, was sticking at around 19-20% of the electorate; the real winner from the poll was Ciudadanos who had risen sharply in a mirror image of the PP’s decline and now stood slightly ahead of the PSOE.
The same edition reported on the latest twists in the Gürtel scandal: a final ruling from Spain’s supreme court upholding the verdicts on a number of businessmen and PP officials in Valencia, found guilty of corruption over the allocation of regional government contracts (“El Supremo confirma la primera sentencia de la red Gürtel y avala la prueba clave”).
Cut forward to 31 May and La Vanguardia was reporting on Rajoy’s last day in office, following a week that started in triumph for the Prime Minister as he managed to negotiate support from the Basque Nationalist Party the PNV for his budget, but quickly turned to crisis when the verdict of another major trial in the Gürtel series was handed down (“De la euforia a la caída: los ocho días que tumbaron a Rajoy“). Critically, this time the case, which saw former PP Treasurer Luís Bárcenas sentenced to 33 years in prison, directly impinged on Rajoy as the trial judges cast doubt on the credibility of the evidence he had given to the court as a witness. It was the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, who pressed Pedro Sánchez to bring a no-confidence motion although the paper argues that Rajoy’s fate was really sealed by the less than wholehearted support he got from Ciudadanos, who called for new elections. As his political enemies circled, the coup de grace came from the PNV who decided that, this time, they would cast their vote against him.
In a surprisingly sympathetic piece, El País reported that the deeply private politician reacted by withdrawing from public view for a few days, closeted with his family and a few close advisers before announcing his decision to step down from the leadership of the PP, and politics, at an emotional executive meeting of the party (“El secreto mejor guardado de Rajoy“).