Spain's Socialists have filed a no-confidence motion against Mariano Rajoy after judges ruled that his Popular Party (PP) benefited from illegal funds. A fractured opposition will have to unite for the move to succeed.
Spain's biggest opposition party, the Socialists, tabled the non-confidence motion in the country's parliament on Friday, hoping to topple the government that has come under fire following the National Court ruling in the so-called Gurtel corruption trial on Thursday.
"There is only one person responsible for the political disaffection," Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez said. "That person is called Mariano Rajoy." Sanchez said he would call elections if he won the vote, after "recovering stability and normality, and cleaning the public institutions."
No date has been set for the vote on the motion, but it is expected to be held next week.
The judges on Thursday sentenced 29 businesspeople and PP officials to a combined total of 351 years in jail for fraud, tax evasion and money laundering among other crimes. They found the PP benefited from illegally obtained funds and fined it €245,000 ($290,000).
In their ruling, the judges said the credibility of Prime Minister Rajoy's testimony denying the scandal "should be questioned."
"(His) testimony does not appear as plausible enough to refute the strong evidence showing the existence of a slush fund in the party," the judges said. It was the first time that a ruling party in Spain had been found guilty in court and the PP is to appeal.
National daily El Pais said in an editorial on Friday that "there is no precedent in democratic Spain for such a blow."
Rajoy is also under fire for his handling of the ongoing dispute with Catalonia. The Catalan daily newspaper El Periodico called the court ruling a "devastating sentence."
But the prime minister said he would not step down and was committed to seeing out his term which ends in 2020. Rajoy dismissed the no-confidence vote as "nonsense" in a televised press conference on Friday and said it went "against stability in Spain."
Friday's no-confidence vote will need the support of 176 lawmakers in Spain's 350-strong lower house of parliament to succeed. This would include the far-left Podemos (We can) party as well as the business-friendly Ciudadanos (Citizens).
To date, the Ciudadanos lawmakers have backed Rajoy's minority government in parliament and are unlikely to support Rajoy's ouster.
"The motion presented by Sanchez, with what we imagine is the support of populists and separatists, is not Ciudadanos' motion," secretary general Jose Manuel Villegas told a news conference on Friday. "We will oppose this motion and ask that Spaniards be given their say and that elections be called."
Podemos has signaled its backing for the Socialists. In a tweet on Friday, the party's Madrid branch wrote: "We support the censure motion."
The graft scandals have dented the popularity of Rajoy's PP. A recent poll published by the Sociological Research Center put the party's support at 24 percent, down from 33 percent at the last general election in June 2016.
The popularity of Cuidadanos has surged in the past few months.
shs/jm (Reuters, AP, AFP)