MADRID - Spain faces its most uncertain national election in 40 years on Sunday with newcomer parties poised for big gains against the traditionally dominant
conservatives and socialists, complicating efforts to form a stable government.
The ballot will mark the end of the established two-party system that has held sway since the dictatorship of Francisco Franco ended in 1975, ushering in an untested and potentially volatile era of consensus politics.
It will also offer the latest snapshot of the willingness of European electorates to abandon the mainstream center-right and center-left, following significant gains by populist parties since October in elections in France and Portugal.
Opinion polls show the governing conservative People's Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will win Sunday's vote but fall well short of an absolute majority.
Rajoy said on Wednesday he would consider a cross-party pact to ensure a stable administration over the scheduled four-year term, but all the main opposition parties have come out against joining the PP in a coalition.
That points to a stalemate that analysts agree would probably disrupt an economic reform program that has helped pull Spain out of recession and made inroads into a still stubbornly high unemployment rate.
But many Spaniards view the election as an opportunity to shake up a political establishment they consider inefficient and corrupt.
"The People's Party and the Socialists have run out of steam. They've promised things that they've never done and I hope that Podemos will be a change," says Cristian Ciudad, who works on a fish stall at Valencia's fresh food market.
The 22-year-old says most of his friends will also vote for the upstart leftist anti-austerity party because they think it can bring much-needed youth employment.
"If there are no jobs there is no money, and if there's no money you can't have a home or any other basic thing," he said.
Left or right?
But even with one in five voters still undecided, anything than a PP win would be a major surprise.
The socialists are expected to come second with Podemos ("We Can") and a second major newcomer, liberal Ciudadanos ("Citizens"), vying for third place to become kingmakers in post-election talks.
That prediction makes any of three outcomes possible: either a right-wing or left-wing coalition government or a minority administration. Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez and Ciudadanos chief Albert Rivera have both rejected the idea of a coalition with the PP.
"It would be a disappointment for millions of Ciudadanos voters if we were to be part of ... a government or a pact with parties that represent a way of doing politics from the past," Rivera said in a televised interview on Monday. "It is possible to be in the opposition and back the investiture of another party, but I won't do it."
That runs counter to the party's line hitherto, as it has supported governments from the left or right in five Spanish regions.
A socialist-led government backed by Podemos is also possible, but the newcomer party's leader Pablo Iglesias has demanded major concessions to consider that option.
'Forget about the big reforms'
Ciudadanos and Podemos insiders say both parties are looking beyond Sunday's vote with their main ambition to keep stealing voters from the PP and the Socialists, giving them little incentive to support a coalition government.
"The emerging parties may view Sunday's election as only the first round and will wait for a second round in which they will have a chance to switch from emerging to dominant," said Antoni Gutierrez Rubi, who heads political consultancy firm Ideograma.
Rubi says that would be negative for Spain, making further economic reforms difficult and potentially triggering fresh elections.
Similar concerns in financial markets pushed the yield gap between short-term Spanish and German bonds near its widest point in five months on Friday.
But many analysts believe the low interest rates and cheap oil sustaining a broad rebound in Southern European economies will more than offset the political risk and remove pressure for economic reforms.
"Since [leftist] Syriza came to power in Greece, the threshold for the markets to get worried about politics has gone up," said Teneo Intelligence analyst Antonio Barroso. "..So the incentives [for Spain] to invest in bold economic
measures will be limited, forget about the big reforms."