Who Is Mariano Rajoy? Spain’s Prime Minister to Be Ousted for Corruption Scandal

Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s conservative prime minister, is set to be ousted from power this weekend due to a corruption scandal that has shaken his ruling Popular Party.

Spain’s center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) garnered enough support to push through a motion of no-confidence, a move that is expected to remove from power Friday the man who has led the country since 2011. The day before the vote, Rajoy vanished from parliament, leaving pundits to speculate whether he would resign before parliament could vote to remove him.

What Rajoy does next could change the political landscape of the country in the near future. If he resigns, his deputy head of government, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, would take over until new elections are called, allowing the conservative party to remain in power in the interim. If he is removed, PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez will be put in charge. Sanchez has called on the prime minister to resign Thursday.  

“What more needs to happen for you to understand that remaining is damaging and a burden not only for the country but also for your own party?” Sanchez said to Rajoy in parliament on Thursday morning, before the prime minister disappeared during the afternoon’s parliamentary session.

For his part, Rajoy has accused Sanchez of using corruption as an excuse to grab power. “With what moral authority are you speaking? Are you perhaps Mother Teresa of Calcutta?” Rajoy snapped at Sanchez on Thursday.

Experts say it’s unlikely that Rajoy will step down. María Dolores de Cospedal, Spain’s Minister of Defense and the conservative party’s secretary general, issued a statement confirming that Rajoy does not plan to leave power voluntarily.

“The no-confidence vote will prosper. Rajoy is not going to resign. Pedro Sanchez will be prime minister tomorrow,” Gemma Ubasart-González, a professor of political science at the University of Girona in Spain, told Newsweek.

“None of the parties that support the PSOE in this motion, nor the PSOE itself, have an interest in immediately calling elections. But it will all depend on whether they can govern,” Ubasart added, referring to the fact that none of Spain's political parties currently has a parliamentary majority.

Some observers argue that everything could change at the last moment. But for now, the socialists appear to have the support of the left-wing party Podemos and other smaller regional parties, giving them the 176 votes needed to remove Rajoy. 

Rajoy is currently one of Europe’s longest-serving prime ministers, and many of his opponents see Friday’s no-confidence vote as a chance for Spain to have a fresh start. 

Rajoy managed to hang on to power following the elections of late 2015, in which his conservative Popular Party won an insufficient number of parliamentary seats to form a government. Several new political parties, Podemos on the left and Ciudadanos on the center-right, emerged as significant political players during that year’s election, adding uncertainty into a political landscape traditionally dominated by two parties: the conservatives and the socialists. Years of austerity measures in response to a deep financial crisis had changed public sentiment and broken trust in the ruling elite. Ten months passed before Spain was able to form a government. But Rajoy ultimately remained as prime minister against the odds. 

Since then, however, he has been plagued by problems, including a strong separatist movement in the province of Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, and the prosecution of key members of his party in the infamous Gurtel corruption case. Rajoy’s opponents, including Sanchez, said he failed to take responsibility for the fact that his party’s treasurer, Luis Barcenas, was handed a 33-year jail sentence for money laundering, tax crimes and accepting bribes. At least 28 other officials and businessmen connected to Rajoy’s party were also convicted for accepting bribes in the country’s biggest corruption scandal to date. Additional cases are still pending, and last year Rajoy himself was forced to testify

Some experts said that Rajoy’s removal from power will indicate the people in Spain are starting to take corruption seriously.

“It’s definitely a cultural shift in attitudes about corruption. Using public tenders to spread money around would have been seen as a necessary evil 10 or 15 years ago, a lubricant of the system. It was prevalent in the post–[Francisco] Franco era,” Bart Oosterveld, an expert on European economics at the Atlantic Council, told Newsweek. “Spain now has a lot of macroeconomic stability; it’s a well-functioning democracy, so I don’t see a disaster scenario. But [they] don’t have a viable coalition, so I’d be greatly surprised if they don’t call elections this year.”

Regardless of what happens, many believe that Spain hasn't seen the last of Rajoy. 

"He could remain the head of the opposition, or he could retire. That will have a lot to do with the party and what it decides. But if they start looking for new leaders now, that could project a weak image of the party that wouldn't be convenient for them," Argelia Queralt, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Barcelona, told Newsweek. "If there is one thing Rajoy has shown, it's that he can overcome any type of crisis." 

Rajoy was born in Spain's northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela in 1955. He was elected the Popular Party's regional deputy at age 26, and served as a minister during the José María Aznar governments of 1996 and 2004.