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After 10-month stalemate, Spain gets new government but uncertainty lingers

Newly re-elected Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016.

Newly re-elected Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016.  (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Spain's 10-month political deadlock is over and a new government is finally in place, but it's anybody's guess how long it will last.

Parliament on Saturday approved Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy's reappointment as prime minister, but only because the leading opposition Socialist party, with 84 deputies, abstained.

The vote ended an impasse stemming from inconclusive elections in December and in June that left Parliament more fragmented than ever and made an agreement between parties on who would govern difficult to achieve. Rajoy's party won both elections, but lost the majority it had enjoyed since 2011.

After months of stalemate, Rajoy was finally able to capitalize on the severe weakness of the Socialists — leaderless and reeling from their party's worst-ever election results — to ensure their abstention and get by in a last-minute parliamentary vote that averted a third round of elections.

After overcoming that obstacle on Saturday, the prime minister still has his work cut out for him. Never has a Spanish government gotten off to such an uncertain start.

From now on, the minority government will be at the beck and call of the opposition parties — none of which has ever hidden its dislike of the Popular Party leader's bullish, uncompromising ways — need to use all its tactical skills to get legislation passed.

"It has all the signs of being a short legislature," Carlos III University Political Science Professor Lluis Orriols said. "If Rajoy wants a medium- to long-term government, he will obviously have to change his style."

As it stands, Rajoy has the backing of 170 lawmakers against 180 opposition deputies. The center-left Socialists, although in disarray, have not promised any more support beyond the party's abstention from Saturday's investiture vote and could hold the key to nearly every bill's passage and the government's lifespan.

Rajoy said before his reappointment to a second term he was "perfectly aware of the difficulties involved in leading a minority government," adding "I will have to win support."

He promised "to work from day one for a capable, stable and long-lasting government."

But his track record in office since 2011 doesn't bode well for negotiations. He is more often seen as a leader who abused his parliamentary majority to railroad legislation, winning no friends among opposition parties.

"The time of ignoring Parliament is over," said Albert Rivera, head of the fourth-place Ciudadanos party whose 32 deputies and one other opposition lawmaker were the only ones to vote in favor of Rajoy.

The business-friendly party agreed to back Rajoy in exchange for a package of six conditions that included election law reform and anti-corruption measures such as scrapping legal immunity for deputies and creating a commission to investigate allegations that former Popular Party treasurers ran a slush fund. It remains to be seen if Rajoy will make good on the promises.

Rajoy gave an inkling of his planned modus operandi by saying he prefers to work on areas in which agreement is possible and to avoid those where it is not.

It might not be that simple.

The prime minister's first battle will be to pass a 2017 budget in which he must come up with ways of finding some 5.5 billion euros ($6 billion) in cuts or tax hikes to meet a 2017 deficit target agreed to with the European Commission.

The Socialists said they have no intention of approving a Popular Party budget, insisting Rajoy seek support elsewhere.

"No way do we plan on giving stability to Rajoy's government," interim party head Javier Fernandez said last week.

Barclays Research pointed out that Spain faced two serious problems: raising the money to reduce its swollen deficit and dealing with the push for independence by the powerful, northeastern region of Catalonia.

"It is likely that the government may not last a full four-year term," the firm said.

By law, Spain cannot call fresh elections until May at the earliest. Rajoy said he intends to go the full four years and that fresh elections are the last thing on his mind.

Orriols, the political science professor, points out that while Rajoy running a minority government is an unknown entity, his party proved itself capable of managing a minority government between 1996 and 2000 under former leader Jose Maria Aznar, negotiating with all parties and even with trade unions.

In Rajoy's favor is the strength of the Spanish economy after a 6-year recession that ended in 2013. Economic growth is on track to be above 3 percent this year. He also knows the Socialists are in no shape to face another election.

Orriols predicted that Rajoy would be able to reach consensus on economic matters with the Socialists and Ciudadanos but will almost certainly be defeated by the two parties, along with the third-place far-left Podemos group, on several social issues.

The three opposition parties have pledged to overturn several key legislative overhauls from Rajoy's previous government, including labor and education laws and one on public security that international experts say violates civil rights. But the deep-rooted mutual mistrust among the opposition parties could very well prove to be Rajoy's strongest card.

"It is unlikely that the new government will last a full four-year term," Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo Intelligence political risk consulting group said. "If the left remains in shambles, the PP (Popular Party) will probably be tempted to go to the polls in order to obtain a more comfortable parliamentary majority."

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