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Spain’s Rajoy Ousted, Socialist Opposition Leader Takes Over

MADRID (AP) — Socialist party leader Pedro Sanchez is set to become Spain’s new prime minister after a no-confidence vote in parliament Friday unseated Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government. The incoming leader vowed to address Spaniards’ “social urgencies” after years of austerity.

Sanchez, until now the leader of the largest opposition party, could be sworn in by King Felipe VI as early as Saturday and appoint his Cabinet over the coming days.

Sanchez, 46, takes the helm of the 19-country eurozone’s fourth-largest economy at a time when the European Union has to resolve numerous problems, including the United Kingdom’s departure from the bloc and political tension over migrants continuing to enter the continent from North Africa.

On the domestic front, Sanchez will head a minority government that will likely need to negotiate potentially difficult deals with other parties to get its legislation passed.

To prevent a power vacuum after a no-confidence motion, Spanish law makes the motion’s author — in this case, Sanchez — the country’s new leader as soon as the king swears him in.

The Madrid stock exchange was up 1.8 percent after Sanchez won the vote and earned a standing ovation from his party’s lawmakers.

The end of Rajoy’s more than six-year reign as Spanish prime minister was the first ouster of a serving leader by parliament in four decades of democracy and brought a rare success for a center-left party in Europe in recent times.

Rajoy went to shake hands with Sanchez after the result was announced.

He made brief farewell remarks to lawmakers before the vote, telling them that “it has been an honor to leave Spain better than I found it.”

Rajoy has been in power since December 2011, successfully steering Spain out of its worst economic crisis in decades during the eurozone debt crisis and achieving some of the strongest economic growth in Europe. Last year, gross domestic product growth reached 3.1 percent.

But the reputation of Rajoy’s Popular Party’s was badly damaged by a court verdict last week that identified it as a beneficiary of a large kickbacks-for-contracts scheme.

Sanchez saw that as his opening and managed to muster enough support from smaller parties to send him to La Moncloa palace, the seat of government in Madrid.

Sanchez and his party are staunch supporters of the EU and the continent’s shared currency.

Sanchez, who will be Spain’s seventh prime minister since the country’s return to democracy in the late 1970s, arrives in power after a spectacular turnaround in his political fortunes.

He was ousted by his own party’s heavyweights in 2016 over back-to-back losses in general elections and after he tried to block Rajoy’s bid to form a government.

The former economics professor and career politician regained the Socialists’ leadership last year.

The incoming prime minister has outlined that his priorities will be social issues — such as measures to help young people and the elderly — before calling elections, though he hasn’t said when there might be a vote.

Sanchez told reporters Friday that he was “aware of the responsibility and the complex political moment of our country.”

He vowed to build consensus among political parties to “transform and modernize” Spain and “address the social urgencies of many people who suffer precariousness and inequality.”

Opponents of Rajoy have complained that Spain’s recovery came at the expense of austerity measures, just as he successfully stood up to Catalan secessionists.

Sanchez faces a tough time catering to demands from small parties whose votes he captured in the no-confidence motion, among them Catalan separatists.

The support of leftist and nationalist parties for ousting Rajoy won’t necessarily lead to parliamentary backing for Sanchez’s government and could produce a political stalemate.

Also, the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) party — which has been leading recent opinion polls — is demanding a snap election and is vowing fierce opposition to Sanchez.

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By ARITZ PARRA and BARRY HATTON , Associated Press

Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal.

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