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MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's ruling People's Party is on course to win the most votes in a national election in December, a poll showed on Thursday, but the rise of the opposition Socialists and new party Ciudadanos has increased the possibility of a center-left government.
The closely-watched survey, released quarterly by the Sociological Research Centre (CIS), also showed that leftist Podemos, which ranked a close second earlier this year and raised the prospect of a Greek-style government in the euro zone's fourth-biggest economy, slipping to the fourth position.
Coming third in the election is important because Spain's electoral law makes it difficult for more than three parties to obtain significant parliamentary representation.
This means that centrist Ciudadanos is now likely to be the main kingmaker after the vote, something that may soothe market concerns about a leftist government in Spain but does not entirely remove fears of political instability.
The new situation leaves the door wide open on whether a center-right or a center-left government may rule over the next four years and Ciudadanos may not win enough votes to secure a stable majority for the PP or the Socialists (PSOE).
Backing for Ciudadanos has jumped after it made big headway in a regional election in Catalonia in September to become the second biggest group in the assembly there.
Since then, Catalan separatists launched their roadmap for independence, which Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said he will block because the Spanish constitution does not allow for a region to break away.
Rajoy held talks with the PSOE, Ciudadanos and Podemos last week to gather political support against the secessionist drive.
All four parties want Catalonia to stay in Spain, although Podemos has said it would support a referendum on the matter.
Opinion polls have been highly volatile in recent months as a majority of voters turn their backs on the traditionally dominant PP and PSOE, tainted by corruption and seen as responsible for the worst economic crisis in decades
The CIS poll was based on 2,493 interviews made across Spain between October 1 and 12, just after the Catalan vote, and is deemed the country's most reliable survey on voting intentions.
It showed the PP would win the general election with 29.1 percent of the vote, extending an earlier poll lead of 28.2 percent while the PSOE rose to 25.3 percent from 24.9 percent, Ciudadanos climbed to 14.7 percent from 11.1 percent and Podemos fell to 10.8 percent from 15.7 percent.
However, the number of people who say they will not vote or have not made their choice increased to 31.9 percent from 30.2 percent, suggesting that a change in trend is still possible
The poll also showed a higher number of Spaniards are unconvinced by the PP's claim that the economic and political situation will be better in one year's time than it is today.
Rajoy has pinned his chances of a second term on an economic turnaround. But his party imposed big spending cuts during the downturn and was hit by corruption scandals and he faces a big task in persuading voters the recovery is trickling down to all.
The pace of expansion in Spain's economy slowed slightly in the third quarter and the number of people registered as unemployed rose for the third month in a row in October, as a bumper tourism season tailed off and people hired to help out in hotels, restaurants and other service areas lost their jobs.
The European Commission also said on Thursday that Spain's budget deficit would be larger this year and next than expected by the government in Madrid.
Editing Angus MacSwan