MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish deputies set an early-March deadline on Monday for Socialist Party leader Pedro Sanchez to present a government, setting in motion a legislative process that could lead to fresh national elections by mid-year.
Following inconclusive elections in December, Sanchez is leading talks to try to set up a viable leftist coalition.
But so far he has made little progress, with a disagreement over a possible independence referendum for Catalonia impeding negotiations with his biggest potential partner, anti-austerity Podemos, and prolonging the country's political stalemate.
The speaker of the lower parliamentary house, Patxi Lopez, said it would schedule March 3 for a vote of confidence in whatever administration Sanchez presents.
If that fails to win support, other parties - including acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose centre-right People's Party (PP) finished first in December's vote - would have two months to form an alternative coalition before a new election would be called.
According to a survey by polling firm GAD3 on Sunday, 58 percent of Spaniards believe fresh elections will take place.
That could well be in June, according to media speculation.
Sanchez, whose Socialists finished second in December and who has ruled out backing a PP-led government, favours a coalition of leftist parties, including Podemos.
Podemos' leader Pablo Iglesias unveiled plans on Monday for a leftist "government of change" to reverse deep and unpopular budget cuts.
The Socialists oppose his pre-election promise of a referendum for Catalonia, though Iglesias suggested some flexibility on that issue.
"It is essential a referendum that allows the citizens of Catalonia to exercise their right to decide their political future... but we're open to other proposals," he told a news conference.
According to projections in a second part of the GAD3 survey, released on Monday, the PP and Socialists would lose seats to Podemos and liberal Ciudadanos in a new election, though parliament would remain as fragmented as it is now.
Reporting by Angus Berwick and Paul Day; Editing by Paul Day and John Stonestreet