Spain looks set to return to the polls for the fourth time in as many years in November after last-ditch efforts to break the deadlock following April’s inconclusive vote came to nothing late on Tuesday.
Although the Spanish socialist party (PSOE), led by the acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, won the most votes five months ago, it fell well short of a majority in the country’s 350-seat congress.
Sánchez’s efforts to form a government were hobbled by the refusal of the centre-right Citizens party to countenance a pact with the PSOE and by the socialists’ own firm veto on entering into a coalition with the far-left, anti-austerity alliance Unidas Podemos.
On Tuesday night, after two days of talks with party leaders, King Felipe announced that he would not be putting forward a candidate to stand as prime minister as none was likely to win an investiture debate in congress.
Barring any breakthroughs, parliament is expected to be dissolved on Monday and a general election held on 10 November.
Speaking at a press conference after the king’s announcement, Sánchez sought to put the blame for the new elections firmly on his political opponents and appealed to Spaniards to back the PSOE once again in November.
“It has been impossible to fulfil the mandate given to us by the Spanish people on 28 April,” he said. “There is no majority in congress that guarantees the formation of a government, which pushes us to a repeat election on 10 November.”
He accused Citizens, the conservative People’s party (PP) and Unidas Podemos of “choosing to block the formation of a government that the Spanish people demanded at the ballot box”, but said he hoped voters would again rally to what called the PSOE’s “progressive path”.
The Podemos leader, Pablo Iglesias, accused Sánchez of making “an error of historic proportions” and said the acting prime minister did not understand the nature of multi-party politics.
Pablo Casado, who leads the PP, said: “We suspect that what Sánchez wanted wasn’t to form a government but to hold [another] election. I hope that if there is an election, he doesn’t get off too easily.”
Recent polls have suggested the socialists would again finish first, but would again fail to secure a majority. They predict the PP would finish second, picking up more seats than in April, while Citizens is expected to fare very badly, losing between 19 and 23 seats.
On Monday, Citizens’ leader, Albert Rivera, had appeared to thaw on his bitter opposition to helping Sánchez back into office.
Rivera offered his party’s abstention in any forthcoming investiture debate if the PSOE promised not to increase taxes, ruled out pardoning the 12 Catalan leaders on trial for their role in the 2017 attempt at winning independence and rejected the support of secessionists in the Navarra region.
Sánchez said his party was already fulfilling the conditions and called on Rivera to end the impasse and avoid another election being called.
However, a telephone conversation between the two leaders on Tuesday morning failed to bridge the divide.
In a tweet after the call, Rivera wrote: “I’ve just spoken to Pedro Sánchez. His response to the solution we’re proposing from the opposition is a denial of reality and an attempt to trick the people of Spain. I ask him to put things right, return to constitutionality and allow the end of the impasse in Spain.”
Spain’s traditional two-party system has been thrown into chaos in recent years by the emergence of Podemos and Citizens, which have challenged the longstanding primacy of the PSOE and the PP.
Recent years have also been eventful for the socialists. Sánchez was forced from the helm of the PSOE in October 2016 after powerful factions within the party rebelled against his refusal to allow the PP, led by the then acting prime minister Mariano Rajoy, to form a government.
Matters have been further complicated by the Catalan independence crisis. Although Sánchez has taken a more conciliatory approach to the issue than Rajoy – who used the constitution to take control of the region – he has flatly refused to allow an independence referendum.
In February this year, the two main Catalan pro-independence parties punished Sánchez by joining forces with their enemies in the PP and Citizens to torpedo the PSOE’s national budget, triggering April’s election.