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After Spain’s startling election, here are the five ways it can form a government

- December 22, 2015
Spain’s acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy reacts during a news conference a day after the most fragmented national election result in Spain’s history in Madrid on Dec. 21, 2015. (REUTERS/Susana Vera)

For the first time since the re-inauguration of democracy in 1977, on Monday Spaniards woke up without knowing not only which parties are going to form the government—but also not knowing who is going to be the next prime minister. In earlier years when the first party didn’t manage to obtain a majority (1977, 1979, 1993, 1996, 2004 and 2008), it was pretty clear to everyone who was going to head the government.

That’s not true after this past Sunday’s elections. The governing conservative People’s Party not only failed to renew the absolute majority it won four years ago, but it also lost almost one-fifth of its electoral support. With only 123 seats in parliament, 63 less than in 2011, the current premier, Mariano Rajoy, will find it difficult to renew his mandate. This is true in part because the only other center-right party to get into parliament, Ciudadanos, did not match earlier expectations – and won barely 40 seats.

Paradoxically, and despite winning only 90 seats — its worst results since 1933 — the socialist party (PSOE) will, in principle, have the upper hand in forming a government. Podemos, the last of Spain’s new four-party system, surprised everybody by coming third with 20.7 percent of the vote and 69 seats. Just a week before the elections, Podemos was only the fourth party behind both PSOE and Ciudadanos.

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So what will happen? There are five possible scenarios.

1. The German model: A grand coalition of former opponents

Spain’s two main political parties—the conservative People’s Party and the socialist PSOE, traditionally opponents—could form a “grand coalition” a la Merkel. If they did this, they could govern and also make some important legislative – even constitutional – reforms.

But in their recent broadcast debate, PP’s Rajoy and PSOE’s leader Pedro Sánchez exploded in an angry exchange of insults. And so there’s only an extremely remote possibility that will follow the German example.

2. The Italian model: The two left parties join with the center-right party.

A second unlikely possibility would bring together the two left parties (PSOE and Podemos) in a coalition with the insurgent center-right party Ciudadanos. This Italian-style tripartite government would allow the two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, to launch some of their promised reforms, such as a reform of the electoral system and the introduction of anti-corruption measures.

However, and notwithstanding some common anti-establishment attitudes, Podemos and Ciudadanos (C’s) clearly differ ideologically. The former supports more state intervention; the latter leans toward free-market solutions. Such a three-party coalition is also unlikely because of one of Ciudadanos’s main principles: that “the main party should govern.”

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3. The Catalan model: A secessionist-socialist coalition

Arithmetically, another possibility is a secessionist-socialist coalition among PSOE, Podemos and the pro-Catalan independence parties Esquerra (ERC) and Democracy and Freedom (DiL). That last party, DiL, is itself an electoral coalition of splinters from what used to be Catalonia’s main political force (CiU).

Totaled, these four would get exactly the 176 seats required to form a majority. It would have been unthinkable some years ago. But Catalonia’s drive for independence and the federalist views of Podemos and PSOE could bring together these two leftist parties with the two separatist parties. Here’s what PSOE and Podemos can offer in exchange for ERC and DiL’s support in Madrid: their consent to the celebration of a referendum on the independence of Catalonia and their support for an ERC-DiL cabinet in Catalonia. Catalonia has been without a government for the past three months.

This four-party coalition would be possible only if the distribution of seats in parliament remains exactly the same even after the mail-in ballots have been counted.

4. The Portuguese model: a coalition on the left

A fourth – and highly unstable – possibility would involve copying what the Portuguese have done: bringing together all the parties of the left — mainly PSOE, Podemos and ERC with the communist United Left (IU) and some or all of the other regionalist parties.

However, in Portugal, there are only three leftist parties, and those are quite ideologically similar. In Spain, the four parties are quite different. They would constantly be negotiating their clashing interests and very different priorities, making the government unstable and unlikely to last for the full four years.

5. The Turkish approach: back to the polls.

But perhaps none of this will happen. Then we might have the situation recently faced in Turkey: No group could form a stable government, and so the entire country has to return to the polls, with a caretaker government in the meantime.

In fact, some journalists have already pointed to the possibility of new elections in spring.

Spain’s tradition allows the party with the most votes to form the government. But the ideological differences among the parties in the possible combinations listed above makes those coalitions seem extremely unlikely. Similarly, the PSOE’s power brokers have had said some strongly antagonistic things about forming an ad hoc government with Podemos. And so that fifth option, at the moment, seems the most likely.

Fernando Casal Bértoa is a Nottingham Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham in Britain.