A flag waves over Spanish parliament in Madrid, Spain, April 25, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas - RTX2BMJ0
Spanish parliament building in Madrid © Reuters

Spain’s political leaders have taken a cautious but significant step towards ending the country’s political deadlock, amid signs that the centrist Ciudadanos party is ready to back conservative leader Mariano Rajoy for a second term in office.

Spain’s acting prime minister met Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, on Wednesday, in an attempt to bridge the still considerable political divide between the two parties. Crucially, Mr Rajoy said he would put a list of six conditions set out by Mr Rivera to a vote in his party’s executive committee.

“The important thing is for Spain to have a government as early as possible,” Mr Rajoy said after the meeting. He declined to comment directly on the list of conditions — which includes anti-corruption measures and a commitment to electoral reform — but hailed the smaller party’s move as a “good decision for Spain”.

The country has been in political limbo since the general election of December last year, which gave rise to a deeply fragmented parliament with no clear majority for either left or right. After months of fruitless coalition talks, Spain held a repeat election in June that produced yet another hung parliament, but that also saw Mr Rajoy’s Popular party extend its lead over political rivals.

Spain’s acting prime minister has since formally accepted the royal mandate to form a government. Until this week, however, he failed to make any tangible progress towards securing the votes from other parties that he needs to build a parliamentary majority.

Mr Rajoy acknowledged on Wednesday that the backing of Ciudadanos alone would not be enough to win him a second mandate, for which he also needs the abstention of at least some deputies from the Socialist party. But a cross-party deal between the PP and Ciudadanos would be important nonetheless, because it would further raise the pressure on Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez to change his tune and allow Mr Rajoy to govern.

Mr Rivera, who previously insisted he would never support Mr Rajoy directly, made clear that he and his party continued to hold deep reservations about Spain’s veteran political leader. But he went on to describe a possible deal with the PP as the “least bad option for Ciudadanos and for Spain”, arguing that the country could no longer wait for a new government.

If the PP committee approves the list of conditions, as is expected, the two parties would appoint negotiation teams and agree a date for a parliamentary vote on Mr Rajoy’s candidacy, Mr Rivera said. The Ciudadanos leader presented his party’s demands in a press briefing on Tuesday, hailing the list as a tough anti-corruption package aimed at rebuilding popular trust in the country’s discredited political class.

The list calls on the PP to remove all officials who have been formally accused of corruption, and to put an end to handing out state pardons to politicians convicted of corruption. It urges an overhaul of the voting system with a view to ending the built-in discrimination against smaller parties (such as Ciudadanos), and an end to legal privileges for politicians and office-holders.

Ciudadanos also wants Mr Rajoy to accept a parliamentary committee of investigation into his party’s 2013 slush fund scandal — an affair that has heaped considerable personal embarrassment on the PP leader.

Though some demands will be hard to swallow for the PP leadership, most analysts argue the Ciudadanos list will be ultimately acceptable as a base for launching cross-party negotiations. “None of these measures will have to be implemented by the PP right away, except that they will perhaps have to remove a few officials affected by corruption,” said Pablo Simón, a professor of politics at Madrid’s Carlos III University.

“The conditions should be acceptable not least because some would have been imposed on the PP anyway — such as the committee of inquiry — and others because they actually need the votes of the opposition to get them passed, such as electoral reform,” Prof Simón added.

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