Spain political tussle risks becoming Christmas pantomime
Spain's acting Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, still stands tantalisingly close to a new term in power, after nine months of political stalemate and two inconclusive elections.
His conservative Popular Party (PP) won both elections but fell short of a clear majority - and he will most likely fail to get enough parliamentary support in a confidence vote this week.
He came to power in 2011 and steered Spain back from the brink of economic meltdown with harsh doses of austerity. But unemployment remained stubbornly high and the PP got mired in a corruption scandal.
The uncompromising Mr Rajoy this month broke his habit of remaining motionless, signing a 150-point political pact with the centrist, anti-corruption Ciudadanos (Citizens) party.
Yet he still needs the second-largest party in Congress, the Socialists (PSOE), to abstain in the confidence vote, in order to win a simple majority.
Christmas but no cheer?
So instead of a political coronation it looks set to be a humiliation, as the PSOE said it would vote against him.
That could deepen the sense of political pantomime, setting up a Christmas Day general election for an unenthusiastic electorate, because of the parliamentary calendar.
Congress Speaker Ana Pastor, a former PP minister, fixed 31 August as the date for the confidence vote - and so set the clock ticking towards that most unwanted Christmas gift, whether by accident or Machiavellian design.
- 31 August - Mr Rajoy faces a first confidence vote, needing an absolute majority of at least 176 seats in Congress
- Mr Rajoy is expected to be backed by 170 MPs: the sum of his own PP (137), Ciudadanos (32) and the single Canary Islands Coalition representative (all the other parties say they will vote against him)
- 2 September - Mr Rajoy could become prime minister in a second vote, in which a simple majority would suffice (i.e. fewer than 176 seats). But for that to happen, one or more other parties would have to abstain, and so far none has said it will do so.
Unsurprisingly, many Spaniards are increasingly frustrated by the political impasse.
Ana Arriero, a 38-year-old architect from Madrid, says she is "absolutely fed up with political strategies which, far from trying to unblock the situation and create a government, seek personal gain".
The absence of a fully-fledged government is also threatening Spain's budding economic recovery which has chipped away at unemployment, now down to 20%, after hitting 27% in 2013.
Spain remains on course to register 3% GDP growth in 2016, almost double the European Central Bank's projection for the eurozone as a whole.
But, bereft of the authority to trigger new projects, Spain's Public Works Ministry and the state companies under its control spent 20% less on contracts in the first six months of this year, compared to the same period last year.
"This blockage will affect the economy and that has an impact on each individual. In my case, it could affect future contracts due to a lack of investment," adds Ms Arriero.
Nieves Alvarez is a widow from Madrid with health problems, living with her unemployed son on her €300 (£256; $335) a month pension. She finds watching this political game "very frustrating" while Spain's deep social problems remain largely unsolved.
"People like us are not feeling any benefit from the economic improvement. It's a very difficult situation and I think we are going to be voting again on 25 December - although half the people will be resting all day after Christmas Eve, while the rest will be travelling and won't vote."
Damaging chess game
The PSOE leader, Pedro Sanchez, finds himself in a "Catch-22" situation. If he allows the PP back into power, he fears this will be unpalatable to left-wing voters. If he doesn't, he will be held responsible for the country's third election in 12 months.
Mr Sanchez has made no new moves to negotiate an alternative government, having tried and failed to do so back in March.
Back then he negotiated an alliance with Ciudadanos, but failed to convince the left-wing, anti-austerity party Podemos (We Can) to support a potential centre-left coalition.
"Mr Rajoy must negotiate with his natural allies," Mr Sanchez says repeatedly. But with Podemos and the Basque and Catalan nationalists all opposing the conservative leader, it is the PSOE that holds the key to a second Rajoy term.
Mr Sanchez's first step on emerging from a beach break last week was to propose reducing the electoral campaign, to prevent a ballot on Christmas Day - a sign that the prospect of a third ballot is looming ever larger.
Perhaps the only way out, as hinted at by some senior Socialists, is a different candidate from the PP, less tainted than Mr Rajoy by the party's corruption scandals.
But Pablo Simon, a politics professor at Madrid's Carlos III University, doubts that the PP could dump its leader. "It is an extremely vertical organisation, so it's very hard to see how Mr Rajoy could be forced out," he said.
Pressure could mount on Mr Rajoy, however, when some of the PP's dirty laundry gets a public airing, in a major corruption trial due to start in October.
What happens next?
- If Mr Rajoy fails to secure a new term in power, he and other candidates can ask Congress for its confidence in any number of votes up to 31 October, when parliament will be dissolved for the third time in 12 months, if no candidate has won majority support
- The next general election would then fall on Sunday 25 December - eight weeks after the dissolution of parliament
- Parliament would not sit until mid-January, which would see Spain entering a second year without a full-fledged government
- Opinion polls show little change in voter intention compared to the previous two elections - in June and last December.