Two emerging political forces threaten Spain's traditional bipartisan system. With Sunday’s race too close to call, Martin Delfín in Madrid explains why many voters are already betting on possible coalitions.
Spaniards go to the polls on Sunday in a hotly contested general election, which could force Spain's two major parties to seek support from a duo of emerging political groupings who, with the help of strong voter backing, may play key roles in picking the next prime minister.
With a reported estimated 40 percent of undecided electors up for grabs and demands from many dissatisfied voters fed up with the country's long-standing bipartisan system, the Spanish campaign has turned into one of the dirtiest in recent memory.
The candidates of the four parties leading in the polls have stepped up their personal attacks against each another, while ignoring discussions about the promises they made at the start of the race.
While Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's center-right Popular Party (PP) is expected to win the election, final poll numbers released this week show that he may not garner enough seats in the 350-member congressional lower chamber or in the 208-member Senate to go on governing without the support of other political forces.
Battling for second place are the center-left Socialists (PSOE) - the other dominating force in Spain since democracy was restored following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 - the growing center-right grouping Ciudadanos (Citizens), and the leftist anti-establishment Podemos (We can) party.
PSOE secretary-general Pedro Sánchez, 43, has been groomed by his party as Spain's new generation of leaders, vis-à-vis the old guard that the 60-year-old Rajoy represents.
But Sánchez is facing tough competition from Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera, 36, a charismatic politician who pledges harsh anti-corruption measures, and the 37-year-old ponytailed secretary-general of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, a leftist who promises welfare spending.
Results of a recent poll conducted by Spanish daily El País show that the PP will win with 25.3 percent of the vote in contrast with the 21 percent the PSOE is expected to receive. Podemos and Ciudandos are close behind the Socialists with about 19 percent and 18 percent respectively.
Since Rajoy took office in 2011, his government has been bogged down by a 22-percent unemployment rate and a string of high-profile corruption cases involving some of the prime minister's close party associates. Austerity measures imposed by Brussels and slow growth in the current economy, despite Rajoy's economic reforms, have also contributed to the prime minister's unpopularity with many citizens.
"A large of part of Spanish society has changed. People are demanding new things and [the incoming] parliament is going to have to respond," Jorge Galindo of politikon.es, an independent website run by academics and professionals who analyze current issues in Spain, told DW.
Those demands come from frustrated Spaniards who believe that the traditional parties have failed to resolve their problems since the economic crisis took hold in 2008-2009.
The Rajoy government is also grappling with youth unemployment, which remains above 50 percent. Many who lost their jobs during massive layoffs that took place in various sectors during the crisis have still been unable to find work. Cuts in health and education spending have left many Spaniards without the same benefits they were entitled to just several years ago.
"The prime minister claims that the economy has improved since he was elected. Maybe for them and the banks because the money hasn't trickled down," María de Lourdes Calvert García, a 34-year-old divorced nursing assistant who has a young daughter, told DW.
During their only debate together early this week, Sánchez accused Rajoy of "not being an honest person" and told him he has repeatedly lied to the public by insisting his PP government was successful in dodging a financial bailout from Brussels at the height of the crisis.
"You lie, lie, lie, Mr President; was there a bailout or not?" Sánchez pointedly asked Rajoy.
"No. There was help for an ailing banking system that we inherited from the past Socialist government," the veteran PP politician responded.
In June 2010, Spain's eurozone partners agreed to help the Rajoy administration stabilize and recapitalize financial institutions by granting a credit line of 40 billion euros ($43 billion). Spain has since then been making repayments on the loans.
"You are too young, you are going to lose this election," the prime minister swiped back.
The tone of that faceoff was similar to last week's debate when Rivera and Iglesias, also newcomers to national politics, ganged up on Sánchez about welfare spending, party corruption and the economy.
Aside from the negative campaigning, voters have been speculating about the political partnerships that will be eventually hammered out after Sunday.
Some analysts believe that secret agreements have already been made between PSOE, Ciudadanos and Podemos for a super tripartite to keep the PP from retaining power. Others believe that the PP and Ciudadanos could pair off, with the new conservative grouping remaining in the background and not joining the Rajoy government, but instead pressuring him for reforms from the sidelines.
"I don't believe that they don't even know what they are going to do," said political analyst Galindo. "They are not going to risk showing all their cards before the election."