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The Spanish king has given the conservative opposition the first chance to try to form a government after an inconclusive general election, even though the party does not currently have enough support to succeed.
The opposition People’s party, led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, won the most seats in the July election, but neither it nor acting Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez emerged with an obvious path to a parliamentary majority.
Feijóo will face an investiture vote on September 26 and 27, the speaker of congress announced on Wednesday, but the PP leader does not currently have the majority in the 350-seat congress needed to take office.
If he does not prevail, Sánchez will get a chance to try to form a government in late November. If he fails as well, Spain will be forced to hold repeat elections, as it did in 2015-16 and 2019, most probably in January.
Sánchez has vowed to lead another “progressive” government and achieve a 176-seat majority. He wants to do so by striking pacts with five smaller regional parties — including Catalan and Basque separatists — as well as Sumar, a leftwing group that is his preferred coalition partner.
On Tuesday, Sánchez said he would respect the king’s decision, but he added: “I think everyone knows, even Mr Feijóo himself, that it would be a failed investiture” vote if the PP leader tried to become prime minister.
Borja Sémper, a senior PP official, said on Wednesday: “We are aware that the scenario is very difficult, but we are not going to stand idly by while Sanchismo sweeps everything away.”
The PP does not appear able to secure more than 172 parliamentary votes, including those of the hard-right Vox party and the single votes of two regional parties.
But Sémper said the PP would try to woo the PNV, a pragmatic Basque pro-independence party expected to back Sánchez, as well as Socialists who are uncomfortable with the prime minister’s reliance on more radical separatists.
Sánchez scored an important win last week when the parties he is courting backed his choice for speaker of congress with 178 votes. They included the votes of his most difficult potential partner, Together for Catalonia, a hardline separatist group founded by exiled former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont.
But the royal palace signalled that Sánchez had not yet locked in the support of the smaller parties for another term in office.
In a statement that followed two days of talks between King Felipe VI and political leaders, the palace said: “In the consultation procedure carried out by [the king], it has not been established that there is at present a sufficient majority for the investiture [of a new prime minister].”
As a result, it said, there was no reason to abandon the custom of letting the party with the most seats in parliament make the first attempt to form a government.
One Sánchez ally played down the significance of the palace’s comment, saying formal negotiations between Sánchez’s Socialists and other parties had barely begun.
Feijóo — who portrayed Sánchez as dishonest in the election campaign and vowed to undo his policies — thanked the king for the mandate and said he would try to give voice to Spanish people who had voted for “change, stability and moderation”.
The PP’s alliance with Vox, which is fiercely opposed to separatism, means pro-independence parties from Catalonia and the Basque country have ruled out any deal with it.
A Sumar official said: “Mr Feijóo is leading all Spanish citizens to an investiture that everyone knows will fail. This investiture will not be about Spain’s problems, but about Feijóo’s problems.”
The official said Sumar would continue to work with Sánchez’s Socialists “on the only possible path: a progressive government with a plurinational sensibility”.