Rajoy and Sanchez held their first meeting since the election today. | Sergio Barrenechea

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The leader of Spain’s Socialists said today that his party will not back acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s bid to form a new government following an inconclusive weekend election.

“We were clear: we will vote against the continuation of the Partido Popular at the helm of the government, with Mariano Rajoy as prime minister,” Pedro Sanchez told a news conference after holding talks with Rajoy for the first time since Sunday’s election.

While offering support for changes to Spain’s territorial model and the fight against terrorism, Sanchez told him there is zero chance of an agreement. “The verdict of the Spanish people last Sunday was a categorical no to Rajoy, to the PP, to his policies and his way of doing politics.”

Rajoy is trying to muster support for a second term after losing his majority and a third of his lawmakers in Sunday’s election. The PP remains the biggest group in parliament, but the most fragmented election result in Spanish history means the Socialists can effectively block his investiture if they vote against him. Sanchez said he wants to see a Socialist named speaker of the new parliament.

The Socialist leader, who said corruption allegations meant the prime minister was unfit to govern during the campaign, said that Rajoy had earned the first chance to form a government.

On Monday, Sanchez’s deputy, Cesar Luena, had signalled the party might be prepared to step aside and allow Rajoy to govern.
Albert Rivera, the leader of liberal party Ciudadanos, proposed a three-way pact with the PP and the Socialists to confront the threat of Catalan separatism. Rival Catalan groups are seeking to end a three-month standoff over who should lead the regional government to step up their push for independence.

“It’s necessary to prevent anyone taking advantage of the current situation to break up Spain,” Rivera said at a press conference in Madrid.

A possible abstention by Ciudadanos and the Socialists would be enough to allow a new government and to reach agreement on key questions such as territorial integrity.

The separatist group CUP will poll its members on Sunday on a proposal from the mainstream pro-independence movement that includes Artur Mas, the acting regional president. If they vote yes, Catalonia may be able to start pushing through legislation to prepare for independence while the Spanish state is still hamstrung by its electoral gridlock.

As the post-election impasse stretches on, King Felipe may have an important role to play as a mediator. Under normal circumstances the King’s responsibility for nominating a prime minister after the election is just a formality. If the political leaders are unable to broker a resolution, his role could become crucial.