Spain is heading for new elections in November after opposition parties spurned the ruling Socialists’ calls to allow the formation of a government.
On a frenetic day of talks Pedro Sánchez, the caretaker prime minister, called the other main party leaders to see if he could win the backing of parliament to form a minority government, and so avoid an early general election.
But the radical leftwing Podemos grouping said it would abstain in a parliamentary vote, while the pro-market Ciudadanos party said it was set to vote against Mr Sánchez.
The responses appeared all but certain to render irrelevant a round of formal consultations between King Felipe VI and party leaders, being held throughout Tuesday.
If the king concludes there is no prospect that parliament will vote next week to install a new government, Spain will hold a general election on November 10 — its fourth in four years.
The Socialists have 123 seats in the 350-member chamber of deputies. They would not be able to form a government if the 42-strong Podemos grouping abstains, and Ciudadanos and the centre-right Popular party vote against.
According to people close to the two left-of-centre parties, Mr Sánchez spoke on Tuesday to Pablo Iglesias, the Podemos leader, who said his party would abstain unless it was admitted into a coalition with the Socialists. The prime minister has ruled out such an option.
Mr Sánchez was also involved in a bad-tempered exchange with Albert Rivera, the Ciudadanos leader, who accused the prime minister of telling a “collection of lies” and confirmed that his party was set to vote against the formation of a Socialist-led government.
Mr Rivera had previously proposed that Ciudadanos abstain in a vote, if Mr Sánchez met three conditions: ruling out pardons for Catalan separatist leaders on trial for charges including sedition and rebellion; a promise not to increase taxes on the middle class; and a new coalition government in the Navarre region.
In a letter, Mr Sánchez argued that he had substantially met these conditions, a response that Mr Rivera depicted as dishonest.
People close to the government have presented Mr Rivera’s gambit as an attempt to play the “blame game” and shift the responsibility for early elections on to Mr Sánchez.
“There is a lot of last-minute manoeuvring because everyone wants to show they have done what they can to avoid new elections,” said Pablo Simon, professor of politics at Madrid’s Carlos III university.
Mr Sánchez easily won April’s elections with 29 per cent of the vote but he has since failed to put together a governing majority and lost a vote in July when Mr Iglesias opted not to give him Podemos’s backing.
Some people close to the Socialists suggest the party could increase its representation in a November poll, winning votes from both Podemos on its left and Ciudadanos to its right. But the party would also have to contend with the risk of abstentions among its electorate.
Polls suggest that Ciudadanos’s vote could fall more than that of any other party in a November election, with both the Popular party and the Socialists hoping to boost their support at its expense as they seek to nudge Spain back towards the old two-party system.