Graft-tainted Spanish PM under fire from opposition, allies

Madrid (AFP) –


Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Friday faced down a Socialist no-confidencemotion and lost the support of his centrist allies after his Popular Party was found guilty of benefiting from illegal funds in a massive graft trial.

Spain's biggest opposition party, the Socialists, filed the motion seeking Rajoy's ouster in the 350-seat lower house of parliament, a day after the court ruling was announced.

Rajoy responded angrily, accusing Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez of trying to gain power "at any cost".

"The no-confidence motion goes against the political stability that our country needs and it goes against the economic recovery. It is bad for Spain," he told a news conference.

Under Spanish law, lawmakers can not simply vote to oust the government and hold elections. Instead, they need to agree on who the next leader should be, making it harder for opposition parties to reach consensus.

To succeed, the motion will need the support of an absolute majority of 176 lawmakers, a difficult task as the opposition parties are deeply divided.

The Socialists would need the support of the far-left Podemos party, which has already called a no-confidence vote, as well as that of several tiny regional parties, including Catalan separatist formations which have clashed with Sanchez in recent months over their independence drive.

- 'Need strong government' -

Ciudadanos, which has overtaken Rajoy's Popular Party (PP) in first place in some recent polls thanks to its hard line on Catalan separatism, immediately said it would oppose the no-confidence motion and instead called for snap polls, a demand Rajoy rejected.

"We need a clean and strong government to confront the separatist challenge. Either Rajoy calls elections or parliament will do it," Ciudadanos head Albert Rivera said in a Twitter message.

Analysts said Ciudadanos has no reason to support a no-confidence motion that could lead to an alternative left-wing government headed by the Socialists.

"The motion presented by Sanchez, with what we imagine is the support of populists and separatists, is not Ciudadanos' motion. We will oppose it," said the party's secretary general, Jose Manuel Villegas.

No date has been set for the vote on the motion, which could not take place before next week.

Spain's National Court said Thursday it had uncovered a vast system of bribes given to former PP officials in exchange for lucrative public contracts between 1999 and 2005 in various regions including Madrid.

The court sentenced 29 people in jail for a total of 351 years for corruption, embezzlement and money laundering in the so-called Gurtel trial, named after the code name of the police investigation.

The PP itself was not on trial for direct involvement in the scheme but was found to have benefited from funds obtained illegally. It was ordered to pay back 245,000 euros ($290,000).

- 'Devastating sentence' -

"Devastating sentence," headlined Catalan daily newspaper El Periodico on Friday while top-selling El Pais said in an editorial that "there is no precedent in democratic Spain for such a blow".

The court ruling "badly affects the credibility of a party that has ruled this country between 1996 and 2004 and again from 2011."

Sanchez said the court's ruling had caused "outrage, alarm and harmed Spain's reputation".

"There is only one person responsible for the crisis of confidence... and his name is Mariano Rajoy," Sanchez told reporters, adding that the prime minister's response to the sentence had been "to look the other way".

The PP has announced that it would appeal the court's ruling.

It is just one of many graft scandals to have hit the PP over the years, in a country where corruption cases are widespread.

The scandals have taken their toll on the PP.

The party has 24 percent support according to a poll by Sociological Research Center (CIS) published earlier this month, down from 33 percent at the last general election in June 2016.

Spain's benchmark Ibex-35 index of most traded shares fell by over two percent spooked by the political turmoil while the euro lost ground.