Spain’s centre-right Ciudadanos party has warned the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, that his party’s recent corruption conviction has fatally wounded the government and plunged the country into an “institutional crisis” that can be resolved only through a snap general election.
Speaking to the Guardian as Rajoy prepares to face a no-confidence debate on Thursday and Friday, the Ciudadanos leader, Albert Rivera, said the government was “over and done with”.
Last week, Spain’s highest criminal court found the governing People’s party (PP) had benefited from a long-running illegal kickbacks-for-contracts scheme involving one its former treasurers and ordered it to pay a €240,000 fine.
“This is the first time in Spanish democracy that a governing party has been convicted of corruption and that’s why we think this legislature is done for,” said Rivera.
“It’s a tremendous blow to the PP and to Rajoy, it’s done for the legislature and opened up an institutional crisis that can only be solved by letting Spaniards have their say by calling early elections.”
Rivera said the prime minister’s situation was “untenable”, adding: “Rajoy needs to stop denying reality and admit this government has run its course to avoid any further damage to Spain.”
Despite the strong language, however, Ciudadanos is so far refusing to support the no-confidence motion, which was proposed by the Spanish socialist party (PSOE).
The motion is being backed by the anti-austerity Podemos party but is likely to struggle to attract majority support in parliament even if Basque and Catalan nationalist parties throw their weight behind it.
Rivera, whose party is implacably opposed to Catalan independence, said he and his fellow Ciudadanos MPs would never back a motion involving “populists and nationalists”.
He also said that the PSOE leader, Pedro Sánchez, was intent on governing even though the socialists have only 84 of the 350 MPs in congress.
If Rajoy failed to call an immediate election, said Rivera, Ciudadanos would propose an instrumental motion that would see an “independent candidate” dissolve parliament and call new polls after obtaining final approval for Spain’s 2018 budget.
But such a move could prove tricky without the backing of another party as Ciudadanos has only 32 MPs – three short of the 35 needed to propose such a motion.
There was speculation on Wednesday morning that Ciudadanos could yet support the PSOE’s no-confidence motion provided Sánchez announce a possible election date during the debate.
Ciudadanos and Podemos’s performance in the 2015 general elections ended decades of two-party domination. Since then, the anti-austerity grouping has begun to stall, while Rivera’s party has gained momentum.
Cuidadanos took the most seats and largest share of the vote in last December’s Catalan regional election even though the three pro-independence parties retained their majority.
Rivera’s party fought an aggressively unionist campaign in Catalonia and has criticised Rajoy for failing to do more to prevent and tackle the independence crisis.
Ciudadanos’s critics argue that it deliberately sought to outflank the PP on the right, accusing it of cynically abandoning its liberal foundations for electoral gain and showing its true, rightwing colours.
The accusations get short shrift from Rivera.
“We won the Catalan elections by taking votes from the PP, from the PSOE and from everyone,” he said.
“That opinion comes from within the political bubble – especially from Podemos and from some within the PSOE. They’re the ones who gave up their country and its symbols, and a lot of people on the left – and within the PSOE – are now congratulating us, saying, ‘It was about time that Spain stopped belonging to the right, it should be something that all parties can use’.”
Rivera, whose recent speeches have sought to prioritise the idea of unity and Spanishness over traditional party politics, says that patriotic pride has been the exclusive domain of the right for too long.
“That’s one of the mistakes that’s been made here: confusing Spain with the right. Spain is everyone: it’s us liberals, the socialists, the conservatives. I think that because of our past, because of the dictatorship and the ‘black Spain’, we’ve disowned all that.”
According to Rivera, the looming confrontation in Spain – as elsewhere in Europe and beyond – is one between inclusive, outward-looking parties and nationalists.
“I think we’re seeing a wave of worldwide change: the intellectual, political battle isn’t between socialists and conservatives any more, it’s between a European, pro-globalisation liberalism and the populists and nationalists,” he said.
“We’re engaged in a debate of pro-globalisation and anti-globalisation; protectionism and free trade. It’s a debate that pits patriotism – in civil terms such as equality, citizenship and openness – against exclusive nationalism.”
As a Catalan, much of Rivera’s ire is reserved for Quim Torra, the region’s new, hardline nationalist president, whose history of anti-Spanish remarks has come back to haunt him since he assumed office.
But the Ciudadanos leader rejects suggestions that appealing to Spaniards’ patriotism could prove a dangerous strategy given that the line between patriotism and nationalism can be a thin one.
“It’s like mixing up oil and water; they’re incompatible,” he said. “Torra believes that Spanish people are inferior; I believe we are all equal under the law. One of those is nationalism and the other is patriotism. Catalan nationalism wants to separate people into first- and second-class citizens: Catalans and the rest of the Spanish. I’m Catalan and I want all us Spaniards to have the same rights.”
Rivera, whose political approach is sometimes compared with that of Emmanuel Macron, shares the French president’s “neither left nor right” vision and questions the enduring validity of labels that were devised more than 200 years ago.
He is also fond of paraphrasing a “magnificent definition” of patriotism from another French leader, Charles de Gaulle: “Patriotism is wanting the best for your country – loving your country and wanting the best for your society – and nationalism is hating everyone else.”