Spain's king asks acting PM Rajoy to form government

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Madrid (AFP) - Spain's king on Tuesday tasked Mariano Rajoy with forming a new government, taking the acting conservative prime minister a step closer to power again after a 10-month political deadlock.

"I accepted the task," Rajoy told reporters, saying he would now submit himself to a parliamentary vote of confidence which he is almost certain to win after the Socialists opted to abstain -- giving him enough traction to get through.

This means Spain should finally get a government next week, capping a rollercoaster 10 months that saw the country go through two inconclusive elections which Rajoy's Popular Party (PP) won both times, but without enough seats to rule alone.

Now that the 61-year-old is almost certain to take power again, all eyes are turning to his future government.

With just 137 of the 350 seats in parliament, he will be faced with unprecedented opposition and all other parties have promised to be tough on him.

Rajoy himself acknowledged how hard his new mandate would be compared to when he took power in 2011 with an absolute majority.

"I am aware of the difficulties that a minority government entails," he said.

- Budget or no budget? -

First and foremost on his list will be to get the 2017 budget approved, under EU scrutiny as Spain seeks to reduce its deficit.

Acting Economy Minister Luis de Guindos has said at least five billion euros ($5.4 billion) in budget cuts will be needed -- a measure that is unlikely to gain the approval of opposition parties who blast the austerity imposed during Spain's devastating economic crisis.

In line with post-election protocol, a first confidence vote will be held on Thursday, parliamentary speaker Ana Pastor announced soon after Rajoy's press conference.

The Socialists, who do not support the acting prime minister but say they want to see an end to Spain's political blockage, have decided to vote against him in this vote.

But they will then abstain in a second and final vote, expected on Saturday.

The decision to help a conservative government get to power has caused huge divisions among the Socialists -- so much so that party chief Pedro Sanchez, a fierce opponent of Rajoy, was forced out earlier this month after a rebellion.

The Socialists accuse Rajoy of turning a blind eye to corruption scandals affecting his party, and fostering inequality in Spain through austerity.

Rajoy, in retaliation, says he implemented anti-corruption measures and points to Spain's return to growth and drop in unemployment -- which at 20 percent is still the second highest in the eurozone.

- Four year term? -

The return to government will cap an unstable period that saw Spain go from jubilant hope, after December 2015 elections ended the traditional two-party system, to disillusion following repeat polls in June.

Back in December, millions of voters had cast their ballot for new arrivals far-left Podemos and centrists Ciudadanos.

This resulted in a fragmented parliament where no grouping had enough lawmakers to govern alone, even if Rajoy's PP remained the biggest single party.

Party leaders subsequently failed to reach any kind of viable coalition deal, prompting the repeat elections in June which resulted in a similar result.

Until the Socialists decided to allow Rajoy to rule, Spain had been faced with the prospect of an unprecedented third election in less than a year.

Rajoy said Tuesday he would try and ensure that his term lasted four years, despite the fierce opposition in parliament.

But analysts have speculated he may call early elections.

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