MADRID • Spaniards yesterday voted in a parliamentary election in which newcomer parties are expected to make big gains against the once-dominant conservatives and Socialists, ushering in a new and potentially volatile era of compromise politics.
With many people saying they want to shake up a political system they consider corrupt and unable to resolve Spain's economic woes, the outcome is the most uncertain in decades.
"Spaniards decide today the profile of a new political era," top-selling daily newspaper El Pais wrote on its front page, while rival newspaper El Mundo warned that "the risk of ungovernability is real".
Sky-high unemployment, inequality, corruption and an ever-rising separatist drive in the north-eastern region of Catalonia are just some of the issues at stake in a country deeply scarred by a financial crisis.
Polls predict that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's ruling conservative Popular Party (PP) will win the largest share of the vote but without the absolute majority it needs, which will force it to form an uneasy alliance with another political grouping or rule as a minority government.
The Socialists are expected to come second, while anti-austerity party Podemos ("We Can") and a second significant newcomer, the liberal Ciudadanos ("Citizens"), vie for third place, which would make them kingmaker in post- election talks.
That prediction makes any of four outcomes possible - either a centre-right pact between the PP and Ciudadanos, a centre-left alliance between the Socialists and Podemos, a coalition between the Socialists and Ciudadanos or a minority administration.
About a third of the 36.5 million eligible voters said they would decide whom to support only at the very last minute.
"I would like things to change and for no party to get a majority so none of them will be able to do whatever it wants without listening to others," said Mr Agustin Aduriz, a 30-year-old engineer who voted in the Tribunal neighbourhood in Madrid.
Mr Aduriz said he had voted for upstart anti-austerity party Podemos, though he added that he had voted in the past for other parties, on both the left and the right. "My main hope is for Spain to end up with four main parties instead of two. That would be a good outcome."
Since the end of Francisco Franco's dictatorship and the return to democracy in the 1970s, Spain has always enjoyed stable parliamentary majorities, with the centre-right PP and the centre-left Socialist Party alternating in power.
But a more splintered political landscape could now complicate efforts to form a government.
Mr Rajoy said last Wednesday he would consider a cross-party pact to ensure a stable administration over the scheduled four-year term, but all the other main parties have come out against joining the PP in a coalition.
That points to a stalemate that analysts agree would probably disrupt an economic reform programme that has helped pull Spain - the fifth-largest economy in the 28-nation European Union - out of recession and dented a still sky-high unemployment rate.
"If there is no majority and many parties have a say, that could be a bit of a mess," said Ms Josefa Robledillo, 50, a housewife from the Aluche district of Madrid who voted for the PP.
"I hope that now that the economy is going a little better, things will stay on track."
Ciudadanos and Podemos insiders say both parties are looking beyond yesterday's vote and aim to keep poaching voters from the PP and the Socialists, giving them no incentive to agree on a pact unless they win major concessions.
The Spanish Constitution does not set a specific deadline to form a government after the election. Analysts say negotiations to win enough parliamentary support for a new prime minister to be picked could last many weeks.
While Mr Rajoy's government has already passed next year's Budget and a combination of low interest rates and cheap oil should help underpin economic growth, soothing any market concerns over political instability, prolonged deadlock in Madrid could be used by pro-independence Catalan parties to press their cause.
The Catalan issue is expected to quickly move back up to the top of the national political agenda as separatist parties have to decide on a joint government no later than Jan 9. If they fail to agree, new elections would have to be held in Catalonia within two months.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE