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Spanish elections: Podemos, Ciudadanos and the new politics | Owen Jones...

Spanish elections: voters head to polls in most hotly contested election in recent history

Little is certain about the outcome of Sunday’s election as four parties vie for power against the backdrop of economic hardship

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid
Sunday 20 December 2015 05.09 GMT

Spaniards head to the polls on Sunday to cast their ballots in one of the most unpredictable general elections in the country’s recent history.

The election is expected to deliver the final blow to the two-party dominance that has characterised the country’s politics since the return to democracy. The conservative People’s party and the Socialists, both of whom have alternated in power for decades, are expected to lose seats to anti-austerity party Podemos and centre-right Ciudadanos.

With all four parties regularly polling above 15%, little else about the outcome of Sunday’s election is certain. As Spaniards emerge from a debilitating economic crisis and grapple with issues such as double-digit unemployment, cuts to public services and the ongoing exodus of job-seekers from the country, much of the campaign has been focused on the need for political and institutional transformation.

“I’m convinced that Spaniards will ask for change,” Ciudadanos’ leader, Albert Rivera, 36, told supporters in Madrid on Friday as the election campaign drew to a close. “I’m convinced that these years of weariness, of corruption ... are coming to an end.”

In Valencia, Podemos’ Pablo Iglesias urged supporters to channel the hardship of recent years into political change. “We’re ready to lead a new transition in this country,” said the 37-year-old. “This is the moment that all the difficulties and obstacles they’ve put in our way start to make sense, because we’ve made it to the end of the campaign with the possibility of winning.”

Both of the emerging parties have sought to capitalise on the discontent of Spaniards with the establishment parties, promising to increase transparency and crack down on corruption. Despite their vast differences in political ideology, both are promising constitutional reform, an overhaul of the electoral system and an untangling of politics from the country’s judiciary.

On Friday, as the campaign came to a close, the Socialists asserted their position as the traditional rival of the conservative People’s party (PP). “There’s only one colour – the red of the Socialists – that will bring political change to Spain,” leader Pedro Sánchez, 43, told supporters in Madrid.

His party promises to reform the constitution as a response to the push for independence in Catalonia and says it will scrap controversial legislation passed by the PP that imposed steep fines for protesters, expanded religious studies in schools and made it easier for companies to fire workers.

In contrast to his rivals’ message of change, Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, has urged Spaniards to cast their vote for continuity, warning that change could risk derailing the tepid economic recovery. “Playing around with experiments and novelties is something that a country like this one ... cannot allow in any way,” Rajoy, 60, told supporters in Valencia. “To take a step backwards now, to return to the old, tired, boring policies ... would be an error that we can’t allow as a nation.” His party is pledging to create 2m jobs in the next four years.

Polls suggest Rajoy and the PP will emerge as the most voted force in Sunday’s election. The last poll by the country’s Centre for Sociological Research (CIS), published two weeks ago, suggested the PP could win as many as 128 seats on Sunday, but fail to hold on to the absolute majority they won in the 2011 elections.

How the other three parties will stack up remains to be seen. Polls have put all of them in varying positions in recent weeks, with Ciudadanos and Podemos often vying for third and fourth place and the Socialists in second. Polls suggest one in three voters are still undecided ahead of Sunday’s election.

In a campaign that has pitted emerging parties versus traditional ones, support for either side often mirrors the country’s urban and rural divide. Ciudadanos and Podemos are more likely to gain support from younger, urban voters while older, rural voters are more likely to cast their vote for the PP or the Socialists.

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It’s a divide that could yield a boost for Spain’s traditional parties, as the country’s electoral system gives more weight to votes from rural areas than urban ones. Spaniards who are 55 and older – a demographic that has grown by more than a million since the 2011 election – are more likely to support the PP and are also more likely to vote.

Sunday’s election is expected to usher in a new era of coalitions and compromises at the national level. Many analysts predict the PP will join forces with Ciudadanos to govern, with Rajoy hinting earlier this week that his party would be open to the possibility of an alliance to prevent a coalition between leftist parties.

Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, has said he will not join a government that he does not lead, but said on Friday that his party would abstain from a vote of confidence in order to allow the party with the most seats to govern.

The Socialists have said they are open to various possibilities, but have rejected the idea of a coalition with the PP, while Podemos’ Iglesias has said he is open to working with others in government, but noted it would be hard for his party to find common ground with the PP.

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