Spanish political leaders do not normally resign or submit themselves to involuntary media inspection of their activities; not in the way a British or American politician might decide some issue has a moral aspect and a that stand must therefore be made, a resignation tendered, a public gesture with political consequences enacted. So when the leader of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), Pedro Sánchez, yesterday held a press conference and began talking about matters of no confidence in the Prime Minister, the country's political journalists looked up from their laptops. Finally, someone willing to hold someone else to account, to demand responsibility.
"If Mr. Rajoy does not pass the budget", he said: "and if as a result Mr. Rajoy does not call an early election, what we will demand at that moment from Mr. Rajoy is that, out of a duty to the citizens of this country and out of constitutional duty, he will have to submit to a motion of no confidence". Stirring stuff, a level above the normal partisan bickering. Duty. Citizens. Demands. Constitution. The budget was the "main law" a Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy must get past the house. Alas, it did not last long. PSOE HQ quickly clarified to The Spain Report that Mr. Sánchez was not proposing that the Socialist Party table a motion of no-confidence in Mr. Rajoy but rather that the PM himself announce that he will ask Congress to fail to have confidence in a budget the PSOE would like him not to be able to pass. The Socialist Party would like the Prime Minister to oust himself.
The "self ouster" is indeed a concept in the Spanish Constitution (Article 112): a Prime Minister may decide to ask Congress to reaffirm its confidence in the government. If a PM fails to win that vote, he must resign (Article 114). The "question of confidence" has only been used twice in Spain in nearly 40 years of democracy and both times are now long ago. Adolfo Suárez used it in 1980 to put in place economic austerity measures, and Felipe González (PSOE) used it in 1990, also to seek support for new economic measures related to Spain's integration in Europe. Both men won their votes. 28 years have now passed since a Spanish Prime Minister last decided to run the gauntlet by himself and ask Congress to restate its confidence in his leadership.
What Mr. Sánchez and the PSOE lacked the courage to talk about yesterday was Article 113: the no confidence debate. The principle is the same but the control of the matter differs: parliament may indeed demand the Prime Minister submit to a new vote and, if he fails to win it, he must likewise resign. If at least 10% of MPs (35 out of 350) were to decide Mr. Rajoy had to submit to such an ordeal—and could agree on an alternative candidate—he would have no choice but to accept. Podemos tabled one such debate last year, with Pablo Iglesias as the alternative to Mr. Rajoy, and lost it, because the PSOE chose to abstain. If the Socialist Party really believes what Pedro Sánchez said yesterday about principles and duty, they should step up and take a bit of a risk by tabling the motion of no confidence themselves. They have enough MPs, 85, to try, but to win the alternative candidate and plan must convince both Podemos and Ciudadanos.