Mariano Rajoy's PP gained seats at Sunday's election. | Juan Medina

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Spain's caretaker prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said yesterday he would reach out to rivals in a bid to quickly form a government after his conservative party strengthened its lead in elections on Sunday, though still far short of a majority.

As Europe enters uncertain waters with Britain’s historic decision to exit the European Union, Spanish parties are under pressure to avoid the protracted, ultimately fruitless negotiations that followed an inconclusive December ballot.

Against expectations, Rajoy’s Popular was the only one to make gains in another hung parliament as voters flocked back to mainstream parties and abandoned newcomers that did well in December. But while the results lent the PP some momentum in talks with other leaders, it still faced difficult options. They included trying to rope in the PP’s long-time foes, the second-placed PSOE, to support or at least enable a conservative-led government.

The PP wound up with 137 seats on Sunday, up from 123 in December. But 176 are required for a majority to govern alone.

"What Spain needs, and it needs it now, is a government with a strong parliamentary backing, able to generate confidence within and outside Spain, able to take on the reforms that Spain still needs and give stability to Europe at a time when it needs it," Rajoy said as he called on other parties to join a "grand coalition" of centre-left and centre-right parties. He said he hoped to reach a deal with other parties on such an administration within a month.

The liberal Ciudadanos (C's), seen as a more natural ally of the PP, won 32 seats. A leftist alliance, Unidos Podemos , which was originally forecast to overtake PSOE, came third on 71 seats.

Many voters were confident some form of deal would be easier to reach now the PP has a stronger hand than polls forecast.

"It was a big surprise, but now at least there’s a chance of some stability," said self-employed energy specialist Fernando Cierva, 52, as he walked his dog in central Madrid, adding he had voted for the C's.