Voters break the mould in Spain

The challenge of coalition building will also be complicated by very differing attitudes to Catalan and Basque demands for independence

Enda Kenny and Fine Gael may perhaps take some comfort from the "victory" of European ally Mariano Rajoy in Sunday's Spanish elections. Although he lost his 2011 landslide congress majority, Rajoy 's Popular Party (PP) appears to have persuaded voters, as Kenny will have to do to Irish voters, that after half a decade of deep economic crisis they are now enjoying the first shoots of sustained recovery. And that their conservative leader deserves some credit.

Rajoy remains some way from returning to power, however, as the party has slipped to its worst yet performance in a general election, with voters angered by austerity, soaring unemployment and major corruption scandals. But, leading the field, Rajoy will get the first chance to put together a coalition majority from the dramatically changed political landscape.

It will be no easy task. He will have to rely on both the unknown force of new kids on the block, liberal reformers Ciudadanos, and on regional parties whose nationalist demands are anathema to him. Ciudadanos and the PP between them are 13 seats short of an absolute majority of 176.

The transformation of Spanish politics from a two-party system to one relying on four substantial parties – the PP and the main opposition Socialists (PSOE) together won 50.7 per cent of the votes, their lowest combined total and down from 73.4 per cent in 2011 – will pose as testing a challenge to PSOE as to the governing party.


It too, if Rajoy fails to put together a viable coalition, will find coalition building hugely complex – a majority will require doing a deal with the other new force, Podemos, a radical anti-austerity party cut from the cloth of Syriza, and which came in third, with another leftwing party Izquierda Unida (between the three of them 161 seats) and also regional parties.

The challenge of coalition building will also be complicated by very differing attitudes to Catalan and Basque demands for independence. Podemos, which did exceptionally well in both regions, supports the idea of referendums to test sentiment on the issue which are bitterly opposed by Socialists.

Building a majority appears impossible without going some way down this road, but that may not be as cataclysmic to Spanish unity as nationalists hope. Spain could yet, within weeks, be following in the path of neighbour Portugal which recently replaced a conservative government with one based on an alliance of the left.

The only certainty at the moment, however, is weeks of uncertainty – a "grand coalition" of the old enemies, the PP and PSOE (213 seats) has been ruled out by Rajoy and Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez, though the socialists have been more ambiguous about a PP-led government under another leader. A minority PP government is possible but likely to be deeply unstable... another general election may be on the cards.