MADRID: Spain's Mariano Rajoy was fighting for his political life today as his government faced a no-confidence vote tabled by the opposition Socialists following a corruption scandal involving the premier's ruling Popular Party.
Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez demanded Rajoy step down, arguing he had lost credibility after last week's exposure of a vast system of bribes given to former PP officials in exchange for lucrative public contracts.
"Resign, Mr Rajoy, your time is up. Resign and this no-confidence motion ends here, today and now," he said during the debate in parliament.
"Staying on as prime minister is harmful and is a burden not only for Spain but also for your party."
Sanchez appears to be within striking distance of cobbling together an absolute majority of 176 lawmakers needed to force out Rajoy, who leads a minority government following his reelection in 2016.
He has pledged to call a fresh election within months if the motion succeeds.
"The chances of a successful motion are on the rise," said Teneo Intelligence analyst Antonio Barroso, who said there was a "65-per cent probability" that the motion would pass.
The Socialists, who hold 84 of the parliament's 350 seats, have won backing for the motion from anti-establishment party Podemos, which has 67 mandates.
And with the support of tiny regional parties including Catalonia's two main separatist parties, it could pull together 175 votes -- just one short of the 176 needed to pass the motion.
All eyes are now on the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and its five lawmakers.
The party governs the northern Basque region with the Socialists but has helped Rajoy pass his 2018 budget earlier this month.
It said it would decide on its position after hearing Sanchez speak in parliament today.
Last week the Madrid-based National Court, which deals with major criminal cases, said it had uncovered a vast system of bribes given to former PP officials in exchange for lucrative public contracts between 1999 and 2005.
The court handed jail sentences to 29 people with links to the PP, including a former treasurer, and ordered the party to pay back 245,000 euros (USD 290,000) which it received from the scheme to help finance election campaigns.
Rajoy became Spain's first sitting prime minister to give evidence in a trial when he was called as a witness last year, prompting calls for him to resign.
In its ruling, the court said the credibility of Rajoy's testimony "should be questioned".
Rajoy has denied any knowledge of a party slush fund.
During the debate in parliament today, he said the case "does not concern members of the government" and repeated the PP's argument that only a tiny number of its politicians have been tainted by corruption.
"The PP has had corrupt people, I acknowledge it but the PP is not a corrupt party," he said, before accusing Sanchez of "opportunism at the service of personal ambition".
Rajoy also hit back by listing the many graft cases involving the Socialists over the years.
"Are you Mother Teresa of Calcutta? With what moral authority do you speak?" he asked Sanchez.
The ruling is the latest in a string of graft scandals touching the PP.
Dozens of PP members -- including former economy minister and International Monetary Fund chief Rodrigo Rato -- have been implicated in graft cases, which opposition parties say shows entrenched corruption.
Analysts said Rajoy, who has been in power since 2011, would be politically weakened if the motion fails, with opposition parties expected to press further efforts to topple him.
The centrist Ciudadanos, which has been riding high in the polls in recent months thanks to its hard line on Catalonia's separatist push, is pushing for early elections and has said it will no longer back the PP.