MADRID – Just six months after casting ballots for a new government, Spaniards are heading back to the polls in an unprecedented repeat election.
The June 26 ballot is an attempt to break the political deadlock since last December's election, when no party collected enough votes to govern alone and all failed to pull together a coalition or minority government by a May 2 deadline.
So King Felipe VI had to ask voters to go back to polling stations.
Here is a look at what's happening.
WHY ANOTHER ELECTION?
The incumbent Popular Party got most votes in the Dec. 20 parliamentary election but it fell far short of a majority of 176 lawmakers in the 350-seat congress of deputies, Spain's lower house of parliament. It was the party's worst result in 26 years.
The conservative Popular Party's leader and acting prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, acknowledged before the king that he did not have enough support from rival parties to form either a minority government or a coalition one and thus renounced the opportunity to even try.
Pedro Sanchez, leader of the second-placed Socialists, then attempted to put together an administration. He secured an agreement with one party, the centrist Ciudadanos, but that still left his center-left Socialists short of a parliamentary majority. Also, the far-left Podemos party stood in Sanchez's way by refusing to join him or allow him to govern by abstaining from a confidence vote.
WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
Voters are unhappy with years of high unemployment, political corruption and cuts in government spending for cherished national health care and public education.
That meant many voters turned their back on the two mainstream parties that have alternately ruled Spain since it emerged from dictatorship decades ago — the Popular Party and the Socialists — and handed support to two newcomers, business-friendly Ciudadanos and radical left Podemos, which is led by pony-tailed political science professor Pablo Iglesias.
Spain, consequently, has gone from a traditional two-party political system to a four-party arrangement. In this new political landscape, allegiances and political alignments are unpredictable.
One thing seems sure for the election rerun: a coalition agreement or a deal allowing a minority government is the only way out of Spain's political paralysis. "I think that's where we'll end up eventually ... but it's still seen as the option of last resort," says Federico Santi, an analyst with the U.S.-based Eurasia Group consulting firm.
Spain has never been governed by a coalition, though they are increasingly the norm at the local and regional levels. But Spain's national political leaders have no experience of the delicate negotiations needed to juggle interests and find common denominators. That, Santi notes, could spell trouble with European Union authorities who have warned they will be demanding more austerity and labor reforms from Spain's incoming administration after Rajoy's government failed to meet deficit targets.
HOW'S THE ECONOMY?
Though Spain will spend most of this year in political limbo, ruled by a caretaker government with restricted powers, the economy is surging ahead.
Oil prices and interest rates are low, a weaker euro is helping exports, and Spain anticipates a record tourism year. The European Commission predicts Spain's economy will grow by 2.6 percent this year and 2.5 percent in 2017 — a faster rate than the eurozone average.
With the economy in decent shape, "there's no sense of urgency on the part of voters," Santi of Eurasia Group says to explain the absence of public protests over the delay.
But unemployment remains stubbornly high at 21 percent, the EU's second-highest after Greece. The caretaker Popular Party government says it can create some 2 million jobs over the next four years.
Analysts say as long as the economy is expanding, financial markets won't fret about Spain. The problem is that if troubles arise, there will be no executive to implement policies in response.
HOW WILL THIS END?
A new factor has come into play since December: An alliance of Podemos and the much smaller United Left party, as well as some other far-left groups, called Unidos Podemos ("United We Can").
Some polls and analysts have suggested that this alliance could get more votes and parliamentary seats than the current No. 2 center-left Socialists, who could potentially join in a broad left-of-center coalition.
Overall, the polls indicate the June 26 ballot won't end the stalemate, with parties gathering more or less the same number of votes as last December. That means the political horse trading could extend over the summer months and possibly end with yet another election in six months' time.
Leading daily El Pais last month rebuked political leaders for their squabbling, saying it didn't reflect the country's mood. "Society is much less tense than the campaigning suggests, and it is irresponsible to lead the country into an alarming situation that distorts reality," the paper said in an editorial.
Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal.