Last Sunday's elections have broken the mould of Spanish politics. This is true not only on a state-wide level, as was widely expected, but also, more surprisingly, in the key regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country.
The two parties that have treated Spanish politics as their reluctantly shared fiefdom since the 1980s, the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) and the centre-left Socialists (PSOE), are reeling. The PP has plunged from a comfortable absolute majority of 186 seats to 123; the PSOE has fallen from 110 seats to 90, its worst result ever.
The spectacular irruption of two brand new political formations has left neither established party in a clear position to dominate a new administration, let alone to govern, as they have each been accustomed, without answering to any other party. Indeed, it is not at all obvious that any stable government can be formed from the abruptly fractured Spanish political spectrum, especially in a country without experience of national coalitions.
All this was more or less expected, as opinion polls have consistently shown that many Spaniards are utterly disgusted with these two elites, not only for their remarkably similar austerity policies during the severe economic crisis, but for the bare-faced corruption that has repeatedly tainted their records in office.
This time last year, polls suggested the new radical leftist movement, Podemos, then without a single seat in parliament, might actually become Spain's leading party. That prospect receded with the arrival of a second newcomer, Ciudadanos (Citizens), also committed to reforming Spanish politics, but from a conservative, often very conservative, perspective.
Meanwhile, before either of these groups had emerged, both centre-right and leftist Catalan nationalists had combined to create a momentum towards independence. This presents Spain with its biggest existential challenge since democracy was re-established in the late 1970s after Gen Franco's dictatorship.
At the same time, the radical pro-independence left in the Basque Country, having finally rejected the terrorism of Eta, was rapidly becoming a major force in that region also.
One curious and surprising aspect of Sunday’s election results is that while they have certainly created a major upset in the state’s political system, they may also have reversed, at least temporarily, the centrifugal forces that seemed to be propelling the country relentlessly towards some form of break-up.
Another surprise is that Ciudadanos, which at one point appeared to be overtaking the PP in opinion polls, has finally been pushed firmly into fourth place with only 40 seats, compared to 69 for a resurgent Podemos.
Ciudadanos had cut its teeth as a regional party in Catalonia, stridently opposed to Catalan nationalism. Ironically, it is the remarkable success of Podemos in Catalonia, where they won a pivotal position in these elections, which now poses the biggest immediate obstacle to the independence movement.
Likewise, in the Basque Country, Podemos has done exceptionally well, coming out of nowhere to take six Basque seats in Madrid, and squeezing the pro-independence Basque left from six down to two.
Podemos is not in favour of independence for either Catalonia or the Basque Country, but accepts that each of these small nations has a right to self-determination. It advocates referendums to damp down the long-smouldering fires on Spain’s periphery. Both the PP and PSOE totally reject this option, but is probably the only one that could command the support of a comfortable majority of Basques and Catalans.
This may seem paradoxical at first sight, but it is not unreasonable. Most Basques and Catalans feel disrespected that Madrid never had the good manners, as it were, to ask them whether they wanted to be part of the newly democratic Spanish state in the 1970s. But they probably do not really desire total independence.
If they were given the right to decide their own future, Spain might be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
However, for this kind of resolution to occur, it is essential that a stable government emerges in Madrid and, given the fragmentation of the vote and the deep animosity between all the major parties, that appears most unlikely.
One option is a minority PP government, supported by Ciudadanos. But this would still fall short of a majority. In the past, PP minority governments have relied on support from centre-right nationalist Basque and Catalan parties, but this is hardly going to materialise this time round. Ciudadanos is even more opposed to Basque and Catalan nationalism than the PP, so squaring this circle seems impossible.
It is conceivable that if PP attempts to form a government fail, the PSOE, Podemos and a plethora of small left and peripheral nationalist groups could cobble together an agreement. But Podemos and most of the other groups would probably insist on Basque and Catalan referendums as the price of participation. That would encounter fierce resistance in some PSOE strongholds, where antipathy to peripheral nationalism is almost as strong as in the PP.
Finally, there remains what would be, in a sense, the most radical option of all: a grand coalition between the PSOE and PP. This would at least enjoy a secure absolute majority. And, after all, in the eyes of the many Spaniards who now vote for Podemos and Ciudadanos – but perhaps are really voting against the PP and the PSOE – there is little to choose between them.
But here there are echoes of the objections that arise to broadly parallel proposals for a coalition in Ireland between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. A legacy of hostility born in civil war defines both parties for many supporters, despite the frequent convergence between their economic policies. The Spanish mould has been broken, for sure, but it is very hard to see what will replace it.