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Spain's Rajoy faces struggle to form government after historic polls

Cesar Manso, AFP | Spanish Prime Minister and Popular Party (PP) leader Mariano Rajoy (3rd R) waves after delivering a speech next to his wife in Madrid on December 20, 2015

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy faces a struggle to form a government Monday following historic elections that saw the incumbent conservatives score a win but no majority, tailed by the long-established Socialists and upstart, far-left Podemos.

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For more than 30 years, the Popular Party (PP) and Socialists had alternated power. But they now find themselves challenged by far-left upstart Podemos and Ciudadanos, a centrist party that came fourth in Sunday's closely fought legislative polls.

While it took the largest share of the vote, Rajoy's PP lost its absolute majority in parliament by a significant margin and will now have to form an alliance with other parties to govern or attempt to rule as a minority government.

Undeterred, Rajoy said late Sunday in Madrid that he would strive to form a government, standing on top of a tall, blue podium marked "Gracias" ("Thank you") and speaking to cheering supporters.

"Spain needs a government that has the support of parliament," the 60-year-old said.

The country's Socialists (PSOE), meanwhile, scored their worst result in modern history -- challenged as they were by Podemos, which has skillfully managed to capitalise on a wave of public exasperation over austerity and government corruption that helped it emerge in the first place.

Negotiations to start

The polls cap a year of electoral change in southern Europe after left-wing Syriza swept to power in Greece in January and a coalition of leftist parties in Portugal pooled their votes in parliament to unseat the conservative government after an inconclusive election in October.

Official results showed Spain's ruling PP obtained 123 seats -- 63 less than in 2011 -- with 28.7 percent of the votes.

The PSOE followed with 90 seats and 22 percent of the vote, then Podemos with 69 seats and 20.6 percent, followed by centrist Ciudadanos with 40 seats, or nearly 14 percent.

The results mean that parliament will be constituted of four main groupings of significant clout, as opposed to the usual PP and Socialists tandem.

But even if left-wing and right-wing parties group together -- the Socialists with Podemos or PP with Ciudadanos -- neither would be able to govern with an absolute majority.

One outcome could be a coalition between the Socialists, Podemos and Ciudadanos, uniting forces in order to lock out the PP and bring about change, although any three-way negotiations would be extremely complicated.

Or, with the support of regional separatists from Catalonia, the Basque country and the Canary Islands, the left-wing bloc would be able to push itself over the 176 needed for a majority.

After holding talks with the leaders of each party that has won seats in parliament, King Felipe VI, the head of state, will nominate a prime minister.

The nominated leader must then win a vote of confidence in the assembly in order to take office -- a process that can drag on.

If there is still a deadlock within two months of the first vote, the king must call a new election.

End of the 'old right, old left'

Sky-high unemployment, inequality, corruption and an ever-rising separatist drive in Catalonia were just some of the issues at stake in a country deeply scarred by a financial crisis and fed up with what many considered a staid political scene.

Rajoy had positioned himself as a safe pair of hands who dragged the country away from economic collapse when he took power in 2011 and put it on the path of recovery.

But unemployment remains stubbornly high at more than 21 percent.

During the campaign Rajoy's rivals also pointed to glaring inequalities brought on by his drastic spending cuts, tax rises and health reforms -- pony-tailed, 37-year-old Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias was a particularly vocal critic.

"We are starting a new political era in our country," he gushed as supporters looked on holding purple balloons to match the colours of the party at a rally following the announcement of the results.

Seen as running out of steam just months ago, Podemos gained ground again thanks to Iglesias's down-to-earth appeal and his move away from the more radical, far-left rhetoric his party once espoused.

Meanwhile, centrist Ciudadanos led by Albert Rivera, 36, was until just weeks ago seen as playing the role of kingmaker. The party only came fourth in the vote but will still wield some influence in parliament.

"The two ancient parties, the old left and the old right, won't have power anymore," enthused Ciudadanos deputy leader Jose Manuel Villegas.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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