Spain's Divided Parliament Convenes at Time of Political Turmoil

Spain's parliament held its first session Wednesday, with lawmakers from four main parties taking their seats at a time of political turmoil, intensified by a resurgent secessionist threat in the Catalonia region.

Lawmakers picked a Socialist, Patxi Lopez, a former head of the regional government of the northern Basque Country, as parliamentary speaker, in the first pact between rival parties still engaged in talks to form a government since last month's inconclusive election.

It is the first time since Spain returned to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 that the speaker does not come from the party with the most parliamentary seats.

Acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative Popular Party (PP) won elections in December but without an absolute majority, ushering in weeks of uncertainty as he failed to form a government in the face of resistance from his traditional Socialist rivals and two upstart groupings.

The lower house is starkly different from what it was after the 2011 elections, when it was split largely along traditional conservative-socialist lines.

In the December polls, both the PP and the Socialists (PSOE) lost ground, ending up with 123 and 90 parliamentary seats respectively out of 350 as voters, tired of austerity and corruption, flocked to two new reformist groupings.

Podemos and its allies -- a far-left party that emerged just two years ago on the back of a devastating economic crisis -- and upstart centrist grouping Ciudadanos won 69 and 40 seats each.

The fresh air breathed into the assembly by the new parties was highlighted by the image of lawmaker Carolina Bescansa cradling her baby and of Spain's first black lawmaker, Rita Bosaho, taking her seat.

Both lawmakers belong to Podemos.

To form any kind of government, Rajoy needs the Socialists' outright or tacit support -- which they have publicly, repeatedly rejected.

Rajoy on Wednesday reiterated his call for a pact with the Socialists and Ciudadanos, declaring it could carry out "the reforms Spain needs" and "consolidate the economic recovery".

"The PSOE is the referee, it's the party with the most options," says Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, director of the Madrid chapter of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Lopez was elected speaker with the votes of lawmakers from the PSOE and Ciudadanos while PP lawmakers abstained.

But despite this agreement among the three parties Socialist chief Pedro Sanchez is still seeking an alliance with Podemos, a close ally of Greece's Syriza, to form a left-wing government.

"Those who voted for Podemos and the Socialists would not understand if we did not reach an agreement," he told news radio Cadena Ser.

Such a coalition still won't have enough parliamentary seats to form the absolute majority that would bring it to power, and this week Sanchez put forward the idea of an alliance with Podemos -- as well as center-right Ciudadanos.

What happens next is anyone's guess, but all four parties are under pressure to form some sort of government soon if they want to avoid calling new elections in the next few months, particularly after a surprise turn-of-events in the northeastern region of Catalonia.

Over the weekend, the majority secessionist local parliament there finally elected a pro-independence politician to head up the regional government after months of in-fighting, giving fresh impetus to attempts to break away from Spain.

"It would be incomprehensible to take six months to hold new elections when in Catalonia there is a government with a clear, absolute majority, with a roadmap with deadlines and concrete objectives," says Anton Losada, politics professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

The political paralysis that it would create would be "problematic when you have the Catalan issue, economic turbulence and pending reforms," adds Simon, politics professor at Madrid's Carlos III University.

"So Catalonia is putting more pressure on them to reach an agreement."

Source: Agence France Presse

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