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Spain ends 10-month political crisis

Mariano Rajoy speaks to journalists after being re-elected during the parliamentary investiture vote for a prime minister, at the Spanish Congress (Las Cortes) on October 29, 2016 © AFP / Javier Soriano

Madrid, Spain, Oct 29 – Spain finally turned the page on a rollercoaster 10-month political crisis Saturday as lawmakers voted the conservatives back into power despite bitter divisions.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy won a parliamentary confidence vote, pledging to plough on with his economic policies, despite the opposition blaming austerity in his first term for deepening inequalities.

“Do no expect me to… damage economic recovery and job creation,” the 61-year-old told lawmakers in a pre-vote parliamentary session, referring to Spain’s return to growth under his watch.

Rajoy only won the vote thanks to the abstention of most lawmakers from the Socialist party, which opted to let their arch-rival govern rather than go to third elections in poll-weary Spain.

170 lawmakers voted for Rajoy, 111 against and 68 Socialists abstained.

– ‘They don’t represent us’ –

The Socialists’ decision to abstain drew stinging criticism from its rivals including far-left Podemos, and divided the party so seriously that Socialist chief Pedro Sanchez was ousted earlier this month.

A man stands in front of placards and banners during a demonstration called by the 25S coordinating group and dubbed, “Before the mafia’s blow, Democracy”, against Spain’s interim Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s investiture for a second term © AFP / Gerard Julien

Hours before the vote, Sanchez himself gave a tearful statement to the media, announcing he was quitting as a lawmaker so he would not have to abstain and allow Rajoy to govern.

Near parliament, several thousand protesters took to the streets amid a heavy police presence, unhappy about corruption and sweeping spending cuts during Rajoy’s first term, shouting: “They don’t represent us.”

“It’s going to be the same government, or similar, (as in) the past four years, which was disastrous for Spain,” said Carmen Lopez, a 65-year-old retired computer technician.

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In parliament itself, party leaders strongly criticised Rajoy and one another — just as they have done for the past 10 months as the country went through two inconclusive elections.

Popular parliamentary group applauds to Spanish interim Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (bottom R) after being re-elected during the parliamentary investiture vote for a prime minister, at the Spanish Congress on October 29, 2016 © AFP / Javier Soriano

This unstable period saw Spain go from jubilation after polls last December ended the two-party hold on power as millions voted for two upstart parties — to disillusion following polls in June that returned inconclusive results once again.

Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) won both elections but without enough parliamentary seats to govern alone. As no political grouping was able to agree on a viable coalition, Spain looked set for more elections.

That changed last weekend when the Socialists opted to abstain in Saturday’s confidence vote after weeks of in-fighting that saw Sanchez ousted.

Rajoy’s nomination will be formalised by royal decree of King Felipe VI.

French President Francois Hollande congratulated Rajoy late Saturday, expressing the wish in a letter that neighbours Spain and France will together relaunch “the European project” to create “a stronger, safer continent”.

– ‘Turbulent’ term –

Unlike when he came to power in 2011 with an absolute majority, Rajoy’s party will only have 137 out of 350 seats in parliament and will face huge opposition, forcing him to negotiate every bill.

Spanish acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy arrives at the Spanish Congress on October 27, 2016 © AFP/File / Gerard Julien

“You are in the clear minority and under tight surveillance of this lower house. The Socialist party will devote itself to monitoring your every step,” Antonio Hernando, the Socialists’ parliamentary spokesman, told Rajoy.

Among his priorities will be the 2017 budget, which may need at least five billion euros ($5.5 billion) in spending cuts to reduce the deficit in the face of EU pressure.

But further cuts are likely to face stiff opposition both in parliament and on the street.

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He will also face rising separatist sentiment in the northeastern Catalonia region.

After the vote, Rajoy sought to strike a conciliatory tone.

“If we all make an effort, we can reach agreements and we have to try and turn this difficult and complex situation into an opportunity,” he told reporters.

He added that he would announce the composition of his new government on Thursday.

Socialist spokesman, Antonio Hernando (L) congratulates Mariano Rajoy (C) after being re-elected during the parliamentary investiture vote for a prime minister, at the Spanish Congress (Las Cortes) on October 29, 2016 © POOL/AFP / Daniel Ochoa de Olza

Political analyst Pablo Simon said his term in office would be the most “turbulent” ever in Spain and could prompt Rajoy to call early elections if he faces gridlock in parliament.

But he predicted it would not be as difficult for Rajoy as some have anticipated.

The Socialists will need time to regroup and will not want early elections, knowing they would fare badly after their very public breakdown, he said.

The PP also has a majority in the senate, and may be able to form pacts with smaller parties in the lower house to see laws through, Simon added.

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