Last updated: December 21, 2015 6:01 pm

Spain tries to form administration in fractured political system

Tobias Buck in Madrid

Party leaders prepare to build government from fragmented parliament

he stage from which Mariano Rajoy greeted his flag-waving loyalists on Sunday night was covered with a vast canvas spelling out the simple word Gracias. The message was repeated in the prime minister’s speech, in which he thanked Spanish voters for making his Popular party the biggest force in parliament once again.

In truth, however, neither Mr Rajoy nor any of his main rivals had much reason to feel grateful to the country’s electorate. Spanish voters have left them with a near-impossible conundrum: how to construct a working government from a parliament that is more fragmented than ever, and that offers no obvious path towards a stable majority.

As party leaders embark on what is likely to be a protracted and vexingly difficult round of talks, what options are there for reassembling Spain’s shattered political system?

Of all the improbable options, this may well be the least unlikely. The PP is the largest party in parliament, which gives it the upper hand when it comes to electing the next prime minister. Under Spain’s constitution, the head of government needs an absolute majority to take power on the first round of voting — but thereafter can be elected with a simple majority. The centrist Ciudadanos party has already signalled that it will abstain. The Socialists (PSOE) say they will vote No, but if they can be convinced at some point in the next few months to also abstain, it would clear the path for Mr Rajoy to continue in office.

What could a PP minority government actually achieve? Most likely, very little. When it comes to economic policy, the labour market or tax system, Mr Rajoy would run into implacable opposition from the Socialists, the anti-austerity Podemos party and other leftist and regional parties. One possible outcome mooted on Monday would see the PSOE and Ciudadanos accept a PP government (with a very narrow governing mandate) in return for a commitment from Mr Rajoy to embark on a reform of the Spanish constitution. Any such government would almost certainly not last a full four-year term.

Probability 3/5

Spain’s Socialists scored a bad result on Sunday night — worse even than the historic low they suffered four years ago. Yet party leader Pedro Sánchez may just be able to map out a path to power. One would involve persuading Podemos and all other leftist forces, including the pro-independence Esquerra Republicana party fromCatalonia, to support a government led by him.

In numerical terms, such an alliance would command 170 seats, close to an absolute majority. In political terms, it would be almost impossible to manage — partly because of profound disagreements over Catalan independence, and partly because of strategic interests. Podemos wants to become the dominant party of the Spanish (and Catalan) left. It therefore has little incentive to make up the numbers for Mr Sánchez.

A second option would be to assemble a three-party alliance with Podemos and Ciudadanos. The three parties share some interests, most notably constitutional reform. But the ideological differences elsewhere look exceedingly hard to bridge.

Probability 2/5

For many observers in Brussels and Berlin, this will be the obvious solution. Combining the PP and the Socialists would offer arguably the best guarantee of political stability. The groups have been Spain’s natural parties of government, and they share a commitment to European integration and Spanish unity. Yet to the vast majority of Spaniards, such an alliance is simply unthinkable. The PP and the Socialists are separated not just by ideology, but also by history: the legacy of Spain’s bloody civil war and the Franco dictatorship means that the gulf between left and right goes far deeper than in other western European democracies. Further, Socialist leaders know that linking with the PP would instantly make Podemos the new leader of the Spanish left, and cause even more of the PSOE’s voters to embrace the upstart party led by Pablo Iglesias. As battered as they are, Spain’s Socialists will not rush to commit collective political suicide.

Probability: 1/5

According to Spain’s constitution, the countdown to a repeat election starts ticking the moment parliament holds its first vote to elect a new prime minister (probably in January). If within two months, no candidate manages to obtain even a simple majority, the king must dissolve the legislature and call new elections. On the face of it, that is where Spain’s party leaders appear to be heading: unless one of the big parties agrees to abstain (or vote in favour of the other) there should always be a majority to defeat any of the potential candidates.

The one thing that might persuade them to shift their stance is precisely the fear of another election. Ciudadanos, for instance, might be especially reluctant to face another contest: the party saw its support drop dramatically over the final weeks of the campaign, and may have reason to fear further erosion. The Socialists, too, could be tempted to extrapolate from the latest trends — and conclude that Podemos is fast catching up with them. Still, with no party close to a majority, and no obvious coalition in sight, a new election may become unavoidable.

Probability: 3/5