February 3, 2016 / 3:00 PM / 2 years ago

Spain's Socialists start arduous talks to form government

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain’s Socialists on Wednesday kicked off long-awaited talks on forming a coalition government, a task seen as impossible unless several political parties drop some conditions.

Spain's Socialists (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez (C) is applauded by party members after his arrival for their meeting at the Spanish parliament in Madrid, Spain, February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas

After meeting small leftist and regional parties on Wednesday, Socialist chief Pedro Sanchez is due to meet the liberal Ciudadanos on Thursday and anti-austerity Podemos on Friday.

Sanchez told a news conference he would also seek a meeting next week with the conservative People’s Party (PP) - the party which won the most seats in an inconclusive December election but, like its rivals, fell far short of a majority.

“The feeling I got from the round of talks I’ve had with different parties is that this is starting well,” Sanchez said after talks with former communists United Left as well as parties from Valencia and the Canary Islands.

The election result has plunged Spain into its most fraught political situation in decades, threatening to bring in a period of instability just as its recovers from a long economic crisis.

Worn down by years of belt-tightening and angered by high-level corruption cases, Spaniards turned away from traditional forces and backed newer parties such as Podemos in December.

Despite Sanchez’s upbeat assessment, a new election may eventually be called if parties remain at loggerheads.

Given the fragmentation of parliament, the Socialists would need the backing of at least three parties to achieve a simple majority of seats while several others would have to abstain.

Not only do those parties have different - and sometimes opposed - economic manifestos but they also disagree on fundamental issues such as whether to organise an independence referendum in Catalonia.

That leaves Sanchez with a difficult path to tread as he tries to keep his own party behind him. He stressed on Wednesday that he would tell pro-secession parties from Catalonia that he opposed their independence drive.

He is also not planning to ask the PP for support in trying to form a government.

But Sanchez sought to reinforce his credentials as a consensus leader by calling for parties to agree on how Spain should respond to a European Union reform package aimed at keeping Britain in the bloc.

“We’re going to ask (acting) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to appear in parliament to seek a common position,” Sanchez said.

Rajoy had been pushing for the PP to lead a “grand coalition” of parties such as the Socialists and Ciudadanos, though he passed on his chance to try to form a government first, saying he lacked support.

Sanchez, who has said he needs at least a month before seeking a confidence vote in parliament, has appointed a six-strong team to handle the negotiations.

These will focus on four areas - creating jobs, tackling social inequalities, restoring faith in Spain’s institutions and giving it a new constitution to better accommodate Catalonia.

If he fails, other potential candidates would have a maximum of two months to try to form an alternative majority. After that, a new national election would have to be called.

Reporting by Julien Toyer, Blanca Rodriguez and Rodrigo de Miguel, Writing by Sarah White, Editing by Angus MacSwan

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