In forty-eight hours Spain’s political landscape has seen an unexpected twist in the plot. Last Wednesday finance minister Cristóbal Montoro managed to have his budget approved in parliament, thus giving Mariano Rajoy a breathing space until the 2020 general election. This was thanks to the PNB’s votes [Basque Nationalist Party], who did very well out of the 2017 talks by renegotiating the so-called Basque Quota (€1.7 billion). The Basque country is now guaranteed €540 million for two years and a medal for having arm-wrestled the Spanish government into accepting a 1.6% increase in state pensions for 2018. However, on Thursday, only twenty-four hours after the budget was approved and nine years after the first arrests ordered by Judge Baltasar Garzón, Madrid’s National Court handed down a harsh ruling against the PP and its "effective system of institutional corruption". The court found Luis Bárcenas, a former PP treasurer, to be a key player in a system to "defraud the public treasury" and the mastermind behind the ruling party’s B Box [as the PP’s slush fund is known]. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison with a €44 million fine. The verdict fell onto the Spanish political landscape —where everything had appeared settled— like a wrecking ball.
Ciudadanos have gained self-confidence thanks to their improved electoral chances. This has made them less self-conscious, exposing their obvious nationalistic fury, while dampening their image as liberal advocates of regeneration, which they had somehow managed to build in Spain. Blinded by the rapid gains made thanks to the Catalan issue to rebuild the most extreme form of Spanish nationalism, Rivera has focused on competing for votes directly with the PP. His ultimate goal is to replace the PP by winning over its voters and, if possible, those of the nationally inflamed PSOE supporters, following the José Bono model. Rivera intends to emulate Adolfo Suárez, Spain’s young leader who arose from Franco’s Movimiento Nacional following the dictator’s death, but for now he has failed to show the same skills as a snake charmer, capable of building a consensus for the mass hara-kiri of the old regime, as happened during the political Transition.
The PP is wallowing in the mud of corruption and is still awaiting two potentially catastrophic court rulings. Rajoy has left the Catalan question in the hands of judges who are diligently going about the salvation of Spain. Meanwhile, Pedro Sánchez’s offer to lead the fight against corruption and building an alternative majority to Rajoy has left Ciudadanos’ leadership high and dry, when they were already picturing themselves in the role of a tough opposition turned into the natural alternative favoured by the economic powers that be. However, the PSOE’s motion of no confidence in Rajoy has given them a boost just when Ciudadanos had been entrusted with the Spanish flag, Marta Sánchez’s version of the Spanish national anthem and the unashamed support of Madrid’s media.
A visibly irritated Rajoy —and not only for having missed the Champions League final— has begun to manoeuvre to "restore the rules of the game" and avoid the "Frankenstein’s monster" of a government he fears will evict him from the Moncloa two years earlier than planned.
Turning the table means the script can be rewritten and the game restarted. However, the players must be ready to play and ensure that they aren’t liable to fold under public pressure and internal squabbles. For the time being, the PSOE, in contrast to the rhetoric it used a short time ago against president Torra, has announced that it will accept the pro-independence votes in the Spanish parliament. ERC and the PDECat won’t pull their punches in speaking out against the PSOE’s complicity in Article 155, responsible for the political prisoners, but they will have to act with pragmatism and facilitate the fall of the PP, even if it is only to give politics a chance. They can’t ask for anything in return: the relief and a change in the cast of actors is sufficient reason for them to provide their support and any demand of a previous negotiation would boost those in favour of forcing an agreement with Ciudadanos. The arrogance of the PP’s spokesman in calling Sánchez the "Judas" of Spanish politics for accepting the votes of the pro-independence parties is merely the first gasp of a cry that will only grow louder.
The PNB appears to have no trouble in pulling off its master stroke. It will have benefitted from its parliamentary support for the Spanish budget and it will be able to help the PSOE in causing the PP to fall, arguing it is acting against corruption. The question now is whether Sánchez will join forces with Ciudadanos. Whatever happens, it wouldn’t be easy for a caretaker socialist government facing the general elections scheduled for 2020 or in the face of a snap vote. Nonetheless, replacing the PP also has advantages for the democratic regeneration that would result and the fundamental message that no one can get away with corruption.
With regards to Catalonia, any small chance of dialogue will be impossible until Spain has a new government and after the elections, which are always accompanied by rhetoric and extreme propaganda. The game is on and there is no clear winner, but it is hard to imagine the fight against corruption failing to succeed, thus putting an end to Mariano Rajoy’s tenure when he least expected it.