More than two months after inconclusive elections, Spain's Socialists are racing against time to win enough support from other parties to form a minority government while avoiding a risky alliance with anti-austerity party Podemos.
Acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Thursday predicted the Socialists would fail, telling his British conservative counterpart David Cameron at an EU summit that he believes Spain would "most likely" hold fresh elections in June.
But Socialist party chief Pedro Sanchez, whom the king has nominated as candidate to be prime minister, says he is "reasonably optimistic" that he will get enough backing to win a parliamentary vote of confidence due on March 2nd or the next day.
The December 20th election produced a hung parliament as two new parties - centre-right Ciudadanos and far-left Podemos - grabbed votes from Spain's traditional parties, the Socialists and Rajoy's Popular Party (PP), which have alternated power for decades.
The PP won the election but lost its absolute majority in the 350-seat parliament.
Rajoy tried to form a government but no other party was willing to back the PP, which has been tainted by corruption scandals, so he declined an offer from King Felipe VI to lead the first round of coalition talks. The monarch then turned to Sanchez.
Wary of Podemos
The challenge for the Socialists, who came in second in the election with just 90 seats, is to persuade enough parties to abstain during the upcoming vote of confidence to allow a minority government to be approved.
Sanchez's entourage makes no secret that he would prefer to govern alone, or if this is not possible, with Ciudadanos which won 40 parliamentary seats.
Negotiating teams from both parties have held talks to iron out a joint programme and hope to reach an agreement this week.
But a deal between the two would still leave them far from the simple majority needed to vote Sanchez through, and Podemos with its 65 seats is a key player given that the PP has said it will vote against any government it does not lead.
The leader of Podemos, pony-tailed former politics professor Pablo Iglesias, refuses to get into a coalition with Ciudadanos which it considers too much to the right.
He argues the Socialists have no option other than to form a left-wing coalition government that takes in his party and other smaller groupings with parliamentary seats.
"No one in this country can imagine that a Socialist government backed by 90 lawmakers and a base of five million voters is viable. It would be the most unstable government in Europe," he said last week.
But the Socialists are wary of joining forces with Podemos, born just two years ago on the back of exasperation over austerity, and which openly aspires to replace it as Spain's main left-wing party.
Podemos also backs an independence referendum in the wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia, a demand the Socialists have made clear they will not accept.
A Socialist party advisor who spoke on condition of anonymity said their tactic was to present a detailed programme of social and anti-corruption reforms that Podemos would be hard-pressed to vote against, in the hope that they would abstain.
The leaders of both parties have yet to start any negotiations, but Podemos has already made public its 98-page version of what a coalition government with the Socialists should look like.
In that document, Iglesias puts himself forward as deputy prime minister to be given oversight of Spain's CNI intelligence service, control of Spain's public broadcaster and to coordinate the fight against corruption.
Oscar Lopez, spokesman for the Socialists in the Senate, dismissed these proposals as a "democratic regression."
"We have tried for years to have a public television that is independent from the government and to guarantee the independence of judges in the fight against corruption," he said.
Sanchez's failure in the upcoming parliamentary vote would mean other party candidates would have two months to form another type of government before new elections would be called.
But opinion polls suggest these would most likely result in another hung parliament similar to the current one -- which would do little to break the political deadlock.
By Patrick Rahir / AFP