MADRID (AP) — Spain's king on Tuesday tapped Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez to try to form a government following an inconclusive December election in which the country's conservative Popular Party came in first but failed to drum up enough support for a coalition or a minority government.
King Felipe VI made the decision after meeting with Sanchez and with acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who heads the Popular Party, parliamentary speaker Patxi Lopez told reporters.
Sanchez — whose party came in second — now faces the difficult task of trying to negotiate with two new upstart parties that made big inroads with voters upset with austerity, high unemployment and official corruption.
The election smashed Spain's traditional two-party system for the Popular Party and the Socialists, who have alternated running Spain for decades. The Popular Party won the most votes this time but got only 123 seats in the 350-member lower house of parliament, losing the absolute majority it held since 2011.
The far-left Podemos came in third in the Dec. 20 election and the business-friendly Ciudadanos came in fourth — robbing votes and seats from Socialists and the Popular Party.
Sanchez would need the support of both of them, or the support of Podemos plus much smaller regional parties that want to break away from Spain or at least win greater autonomy to secure a majority in parliament.
Rajoy had proposed forming a so-called grand coalition with the Socialists and Ciudadanos, but Sanchez ruled out any deal with the Popular Party and Rajoy.
Negotiating a governing deal won't be easy for Sanchez. Among the biggest hurdles he faces is a pledge by Podemos to allow voters in the northeastern Catalonia region to hold a referendum on seceding from Spain.
The Socialists are strongly opposed to permitting separatists from holding a secession referendum.
Sanchez told reporters he will need at least a month to try cut a deal with other parties to form a government, meaning Spain won't pass any legislation or make important decisions until March. Rajoy will remain in power as acting prime minister until a new government is formed or a timetable is set for new elections.
Experts have predicted new elections would be held in May or June if Sanchez is unable to form a government.