The leader of Spain’s pro-market Ciudadanos party resigned after seeing its vote share crumble, while the hard-Right Vox party doubled its seat tally in Spain’s 350-seat legislature, emerging as a major force on the Right of Spanish politics.
The collapse of the centre in Spain’s political landscape was confirmed by the rise of anti-immigrant Vox that won 52 seats, stealing the thunder in an election nominally won by the Socialist (PSOE) with 120 seats - the lowest-ever total for a winning party.
Ciudadanos, which describes itself as Spain’s only centrist party, lost all but 10 of the 57 seats forcing its leader Albert Rivera to resign, warning his country not to succumb to the allure of extremism.
“It’s a bad result – no sugaring the pill or excuses,” Mr Rivera said while urging Spain’s mainstream parties to work together and “never allow Spaniards to be divided into reds and blues” - in reference to the country’s turbulent past.
Spain’s parties remain deeply divided over how to deal with the separatist threat from Catalonia’s independence movement, with the Socialist acting-Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez now with no obvious route to even a minority government.
The stalemate comes after Ciudadanos refused to enter into coalition with the Socialists after last April’s inconclusive election because of disagreements over how to handle the Catalonia crisis.
Analysts said the latest poll had done nothing to break the stalemate.
Mr Rivera also led Ciudadanos into conservative governments in several regions with the backing of Vox, and said he would never back Mr Sánchez as prime minister after the PSOE leader had opened a short-lived dialogue with Catalonia’s breakaway government.
“Mr Rivera was himself responsible for destroying the centre due to his decision to create a system of two blocs over the issue of Catalonia,” said Lluís Orriols, a political analyst from Madrid’s Carlos III University.
“We will continue to see even more destabilisation from the Catalan pro-independence parties, and now Vox has arrived to worsen the existing instability. Governability is as difficult as ever after Sunday’s election,” Dr Orriols told The Daily Telegraph.
With Mr Sánchez having said he will not rely on pro-independence forces to prop up a minority Left-wing coalition, Sunday’s result means that any majority in parliament requires cooperation between the PSOE and its historical rival, the mainstream conservative Popular Party (PP).
The PSOE said on Monday that Mr Sánchez would be contacting the leaders of other parties across the spectrum in the coming hours to push for parliamentary approval as quickly as possible.
But the PP’s chief spokesman, Teodoro García Egea, was quick to rule out any chance of his party supporting a Socialist administration, instead saying his party was “the only option for government”.
Catalonia’s president, Quim Torra, celebrated a record result for pro-independence parties in a general election, and told Mr Sánchez it was time to negotiate a legal self-determination referendum in the region “because the citizens remain mobilised and demand a response”.
Protests sparked in Catalonia when independence leaders were jailed last month for holding an unlawful referendum are showing no sign of abating, with hundreds of demonstrators using parked cars and improvised barricades to block the motorway border crossing between Spain and France at La Jonquera on Monday.