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Spain in limbo following election

Spanish political parties are immersed in fraught negotiations to form a coalition government, after no party received a majority in the general election on Sunday 20 December.

The outcome of the vote has left the country with a parliament split between four dominant parties. Because Spain has historically voted in favour of a single party, it has no precedence for a multiparty coalition government, and all three of the other popular parties have ruled out combining with the PP in a coalition government.

In the absence of a government, important decisions are likely to be put on hold, including the implementation of a national research agency which was given a green light in November. In the coming days, acting prime minister Mariano Rajoy will contact other party leaders to try to form a coalition government, or gain support to create a ruling minority government.

His conservative Popular Party topped the poll: obtaining 7.2 million votes and 123 of the 350 seats at stake. This was widely seen as a failure, as the party lost 63 seats compared with the 2011 elections and failed to secure the 175 seats needed to form a single-party government.

The PP’s most natural ally—the emerging and centrist Ciudadanos (Citizens)—came fourth in the polls. Securing 3.5 million votes and 40 seats­, the result means that a PP-Ciudadanos partnership would not reach the threshold needed to rule. In addition, the Ciudadanos’ leader, Alberto Rivera, has said that he won’t enter any pact with either PP, or any coalition involving the emerging, anti-austerity party Podemos (We can).

In the election, the two left-wing parties, the socialist PSOE and Podemos came second and third. PSOE, led by Pedro Sánchez, obtained 5.5 million votes and 90 seats, while Podemos secured 69 seats after receiving 5.1 million votes. Both parties have stated that they won’t participate in any coalition led by the conservatives.

In addition, Rajoy is unlikely to attempt to team up with the two other parties that would give him a majority coalition, since they are both separatist parties from Catalonia. The parties would demand an independence referendum as the main condition for any coalition, an unacceptable demand for the conservatives.

If PP is unable to form a coalition, it will be the turn of PSOE, which is likely to engage with Podemos and the Catalan nationalists. However, the socialists have in the past said that they wouldn’t support a referendum in Catalonia.

If attempts to form a socialist-led coalition also fail, Spain will go to the polls again in 2016.

In light of the fact that the country will likely be ruled by a coalition of some description, Manuel Pérez-Alonso, a geneticist at the University of Valencia and president of AEEC, the Spanish association of entrepreneurial scientists, says he is concerned that research proposals will get diluted. “From the little information that transcends from negotiations, it seems that science is not being considered,” he says. “My fear is that the parties’ proposals for R&D will be given low priority in any coalition government.”

Meanwhile, Eduardo Oliver, a pharmacologist at Imperial College London and president of Ceru, an association of Spanish researchers in the UK, says there is an urgent need for leaders to reach a national pact for research and innovation. A lack of government will delay any implementation of plans for research policy set out during the election campaign, Oliver notes—although he says it should not delay payment of research grants, since the national budget for 2016 was approved in August.

Any government formed should also be able to comply with the deadlines for the implementation of the national research agency, says Oliver, which is due to appoint its chief executive by February. “It would not be sensible to halt the implementation of the agency if a different government emerges from the negotiations,” he says. “It would be better to wait until it is running and then discuss how to improve it.”

Many researchers have expressed hope that a coalition, and in particular a socialist-led government, would be more supportive of research than the conservative government has been over the past four years. However, the fact that the budget has already been set will constrain any major improvements, says Javier Sánchez Perona, a chemist at CSIC’s Instituto de la Grasa in Seville and member of the Science with Future campaign group. “At least during 2016, it will very difficult to adopt different policies to those that brought us here,” he says.