Mariano Rajoy, Spain's prime minister, speaks during an investiture debate at the Spanish parliament in Madrid, Spain, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016. Rajoy is trying to piece together the first administration since Spain’s traditional two-party system broke down with the emergence of Ciudadanos and the anti-establishment party Podemos at last December’s election. Photographer: Antonio Heredia/Bloomberg
Mariano Rajoy, Spain's acting prime minister and Popular party leader, has fallen short in his attempts to form a government © Bloomberg

Failure to end Spain’s protracted political blockade would cast a shadow over the country’s democracy, Mariano Rajoy warned on Tuesday, as the prime minister made his case to parliament for a second term in office.

“Spain needs an efficient government urgently,” Mr Rajoy said, arguing that after two inconclusive general elections there was no viable alternative to a new administration led by his conservative Popular party.

He went on to warn that Spain faced one of the “gravest” situations since its return to democracy four decades ago. “It is hard to think of anything that could cause more damage to Spanish democracy than telling citizens that their vote has been useless on two occasions and that a general election needs to be held for a third time,” Mr Rajoy said.

The veteran conservative leader was speaking ahead of this week’s parliamentary vote that will decide whether his bid to form a minority government will succeed. Despite recent progress towards a cross-party accord, Mr Rajoy still lacks the votes that are needed to form a new administration.

Spain has been without a proper government since December, raising fears that a country used to decades of political stability has entered a new era of fragmentation and drift. Spanish voters have gone to the polls twice in the past eight months but on both occasions they delivered a hung parliament with no clear governing majority.

On Sunday, Mr Rajoy struck a deal with the centrist Ciudadanos party that assures him of 32 additional votes in parliament. Even so, he can for the moment count on the backing of just 170 out of 350 lawmakers.

Mr Rajoy will formally put his candidacy to a vote in parliament on Wednesday but is expected to fall short of the absolute majority required. Spain’s veteran leader then faces a second round of voting on Friday, when a simple majority of votes will suffice.

Even that threshold, however, is expected to be beyond his reach after the centre-left Socialists made clear on Monday that they were still committed to voting against another Rajoy-led government. He needs at least some Socialist deputies to abstain.

If this week’s political drama plays out as expected, Wednesday’s vote will trigger a two-month countdown towards another dissolution of parliament — clearing the way for yet another general election.

As in recent weeks, the crucial player during that two-month period will be the Socialist party, which holds the balance of power in the legislature but has far fewer seats than Mr Rajoy’s PP. Pedro Sánchez, Socialist leader, could still try to form an alternative government himself — though to reach a majority he would have to assemble a broad and highly disparate coalition.

Many analysts expect the Socialist leader ultimately to change course, and agree to let the PP govern after another round of voting in parliament in October. Alternatively, he could force a third election, in the hope that leftwing voters will reward his refusal to endorse the PP and so expand the Socialists’ lead over Podemos. The far-left movement has emerged as a dangerous new rival on the left and has drawn millions of votes from Mr Sánchez’s party. More recently, however, there have been signs that Podemos’s support is in decline.

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