Fragmented Spanish election results heralded weeks of talks to form a coalition government, with neither the ruling conservatives nor left-wing parties winning a clear mandate to govern.
Despite garnering the most votes in Sunday's poll, the centre-right People's Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had its worst result ever in a general election as Spaniards angered by high-level corruption cases and soaring unemployment turned away from the party in droves.
An unexpected surge from upstart anti-austerity party Podemos, which now partly holds the key to power, is the latest example of rising populist forces in Europe at the expense of mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties.
In Spain, the fragmented vote heralded a new era of pact-making, shattering a two-party system that has dominated the country since the 1970s, and casting a pall over an economic reform programme that has helped pull the country out of recession.
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"We're starting a period that will not be easy," Rajoy told cheering supporters from the balcony of the party headquarters in central Madrid.
"It will be necessary to reach pacts and agreements and I will try to do this."
However, the likelihood of a PP-led coalition faded with the robust showing of Podemos, who roared into third place, outpacing fellow newcomer Ciudadanos whose market-friendly policies had been seen as a natural fit for the PP.
A tie-up between the PP and Ciudadanos would yield 163 seats, far short of the 176 needed for a majority administration.
The strong results of Podemos tipped the balance to the left of the political spectrum, with five left-wing parties led by the opposition Socialists and Podemos together winning 172 seats.
Such a left-wing alliance will be hard to form, however, as groups differ on economic policy and the degree of autonomy that should be awarded to the wealthy northeastern region Catalonia, home to an entrenched independence movement.
New political era
Al Jazeera's Barnaby Phillips, reporting from the capital Madrid, said that the results "point to a period of political uncertainty … and a real shake-up of what has been a cosy two-party system - at least nationally here in Spain - for the past 40 years or so. Those days are over."
Phillips said the real worry for the weeks and months ahead is whether any government can be formed.
"You could have an unstable minority government; you could have a very wobbly coalition of all sorts of unlikely partners - three, four or even five parties together.
"Or is Spain heading for new elections in the new year? Things may become a little bit clearer in the next few days, but it is a very uncertain time in Spanish politics."
The Spanish constitution does not set a specific deadline to form a government after the election. Analysts say negotiations to secure enough parliamentary support for a new prime minister could go on for weeks.
"What most worries me is what the new government will look like and how it will govern," said a PP supporter, 29-year-old teacher Carlos Fernandez, outside the party headquarters in central Madrid.
"The PP can't form a majority with Ciudadanos, but nor can anyone else form a majority. A grand coalition between the PP and the opposition Socialists seems the best option, but I doubt that will happen."
Leader of the opposition Socialists, Pedro Sanchez, said on Sunday that Rajoy had the right to have a first go at forming a government as he had won the most votes.
"Spain wants the left, Spain wants change, but the PP has won the most votes," he said. "It falls to the leading political force to try to form a government."
A minority PP government would be technically possible but unlikely due to the strong left-wing vote, as would be a grand coalition between the PP and the Socialists, which both parties vehemently ruled out during campaigning.
Source: Al Jazeera And Reuters