MADRID • After a brief glimmer of hope, Spain's Socialists look set to fail in their bid to form a government next week, plunging the country into more political uncertainty.
As the country emerges from an economic crisis and faces an independence threat in the north-eastern Catalonia region, it still does not have a government, nearly 10 weeks after elections produced a hung Parliament.
Socialist chief Pedro Sanchez has been racing to garner backing for a coalition government.
But as a March 1 deadline looms for a crunch parliamentary session where lawmakers will vote on his government programme, Mr Sanchez has the support of only centrist upstart Ciudadanos and the regional Canaries' Coalition - not enough to see him through. "The most probable result is that Pedro Sanchez will be defeated," said politics professor Pablo Simon at Madrid's Carlos III University.
If Mr Sanchez fails, a two-month countdown will start from the beginning of next week when the vote takes place, during which the wildly diverging parties will try once again to come to an agreement to govern Spain.
Failing that, new elections will be called in June - an issue of concern at what right-wing daily El Mundo calls "the worst political time for Spain in three decades".
"We spent so many months hearing that the good thing about these elections was that it would finally put an end to the two-party system, that this was the moment for dialogue," said Professor Manuel Cruz, who specialises in philosophy at the University of Barcelona.
"And it may turn out that political forces aren't capable of seizing this opportunity... That would be a failure on the part of all parties, including the emerging ones," he added on the El Confidencial news site.
The Dec 20 elections saw the ruling conservative Popular Party (PP) lose its absolute majority. The party leader, acting prime minister Mariano Rajoy, gave up attempts to form a government after he failed to get support from other parties fed up with austerity and corruption scandals plaguing his grouping.
King Felipe VI then asked runner-up Mr Sanchez, whose Socialists won 90 seats out of 350, to form a government. After weeks of talks, Mr Sanchez sealed a deal on Wednesday with Ciudadanos, which came in fourth in the polls with 40 seats. But anti-austerity Podemos, which with its 65 seats would be a valuable partner for Mr Sanchez, suspended talks with the Socialists over the deal, which it said was too liberal.
The PP meanwhile has said it will vote against any government it does not lead next week. This means Mr Sanchez has the assured backing of only some 130 lawmakers out of 350, which could have worked if Podemos and other smaller groupings abstained from casting their ballots - a move they reject. Prof Simon, however, believes this is not the end for Mr Sanchez if he manages to secure the backing of other smaller left-wing or regional groupings in the two-month countdown. Podemos, he reasons, would then have no option but to abstain in another vote rather than become known as the party that scuppered attempts to form a government.
"Podemos could be plotting that the best thing would be to abstain to stay in the opposition, and make Pedro Sanchez's life more difficult from Parliament," said Prof Simon.