May 28, 2018
A no-confidence motion that could backfire
Last Friday Spain's PSOE filed a motion of no confidence against Mariano Rajoy in the Spanish parliament. This came as a reaction to a court sentence on Thursday on the so-called Gürtel case involving kickbacks on public tenders by PP-led local and regional governments. The PP itself was fined a modest amount for its civil liability in the case, and the court sentence questioned the credibility of Rajoy's witness testimony in the case. This presented Pedro Sánchez, PSOE leader, with an excuse to call for Rajoy's removal as PM. However it is not clear that the no-confidence motion will succeed. The motion is subject to the same parliamentary arithmetic and multiple mutual vetoes among political parties that made it possible for Rajoy to be reappointed as PM in the first place eighteen months ago. If the motion fails, not only would Rajoy be almost certain to serve his full term until mid-2020, but he could claim to have survived two no-confidence motions on the same issue of corruption. By not measuring his strength or seeking alliances before filing his motion, Sánchez risks it backfiring.
The Spanish constitution demands that a no-confidence motion be constructive, that is, including an alternative candidate for PM. The problem for Sánchez is that he can assemble a negative coalition against Rajoy, but not a coherent coalition in support of his own or any government. As Javier Pérez Royo points out, Rajoy's aim in government is to prevent the roll-back of the measures legislated in his first term. But Sánchez, not having a majority for a positive governing platform, cannot govern and should call elections immediately if he does win the no-confidence motion. Ciudadanos, the party providing outside support for Rajoy's minority government, has explicitly asked for new elections. But, given the current polls, Sánchez would be handing the government over to Ciudadanos if he called elections. In his commentary on all this, José Antonio Zarzalejos criticises Sánchez for not consulting his own party's leadership; for the aim to put Ciudadanos in a bind, as it supports Rajoy's government while claiming to be against corruption; for not negotiating the support of other political parties; for doing all this while knowing that he has no positive majority; for outlining a utopian government platform; and for risking the failure of the 2018 budget in the Senate. Zarzalejos also considers that the best course of action is to go to new elections as Ciudadanos demands.
The motion needs an absolute majority of seats in the parliament, and that requires either Podemos and Ciudadanos to vote together, or else the support of Podemos and the Basque and Catalan nationalists. This includes the Catalan separatist parties, which would make many in the PSOE itself uncomfortable. And the Basque nationalist party PNV just supported Rajoy's budget together with Ciudadanos.