Under normal circumstances, six weeks after general elections, Spain would have a new government in place today. But the country's de facto two-party political system was in crisis long before the elections. After results that give none of the four leading parties a clear option to form a government with any of its rivals, that crisis has deepened.
This is not good news for Spain or the EU. Discreet voices in Brussels are warning that continued instability threatens an economic recovery which, though unequally distributed, has pulled the country back from the brink of collapse. But there is little sign that the Spanish parties, locked in a zero-sum game and dangerously attracted towards reshuffling the political deck through new elections, are heeding these warnings.
One might expect a conservative party, with stability as a core value, to take the lead in resolving this impasse. But outgoing Partido Popular (PP) prime minister Mariano Rajoy has instead engaged in an unprecedented manoeuvre that has prolonged the uncertainty. The PP has lost its absolute majority and a third of its seats, but it remains the biggest party in parliament. So, after meetings with party leaders, King Felipe followed the convention of inviting Rajoy to attempt to form a government. Rajoy refused, knowing he would be defeated in a first round, even if he could have persuaded the newly-minted centre-right party, Ciudadanos, to support him. But he also refused to relinquish the party leadership to anyone Ciudadanos might view as less tainted by the PP's corruption scandals. The investiture session of parliament has thus been delayed while the king consults party leaders again.
The Socialist Party (PSOE), which has alternated in power with the PP since 1982, also saw its vote slashed. Its inexperienced leader, Pedro Sánchez, finds the volatile leftist Podemos movement snapping at his heels, demanding a controversial referendum on Catalan independence in exchange for support. But it is increasingly clear that Sánchez lacks sufficient internal backing for any bold initiatives.
Influential former PSOE prime minister Felipe González has described the impasse pithily as "an Italian-style parliament without any Italians to manage it". There is some truth in this. There is simply no culture of compromise between the PSOE and the PP, much as there is none between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Civil War memories and decades of mutually beneficial competition for the clientalist spoils of power make a grand coalition very problematic. A gesture from Rajoy in this direction has not been taken seriously.
Opinion polls suggest that new elections would not greatly change the balance of power. The prospect of continuing deadlock is troubling, especially in the context of continuing – if faltering – moves towards independence in Catalonia.