It has been a long, long political year in Spain. Tomorrow will be Spain's pre-electoral "day of reflection" and on Sunday Spaniards will vote in the fifth major ballot of 2015, their general election, the twelfth in the modern democratic period, if we include the constituent elections in 1977 after Franco died. 350 seats in Spanish Congress and 208 seats in the Spanish Senate are up for grabs, and for the first time since the end of the 1970s, the two-party establishment monopoly is under threat from Podemos, led by Pablo Iglesias, and Ciudadanos, led by Albert Rivera.
A year ago, Podemos shocked Spain and international observers by shooting to the top of the polls, having appeared out of nowhere at the European elections in May 2014, sending a shiver of hope and excitement down the spines of many younger Spaniards disillusioned after years of economic crisis, chronic, structural unemployment and corruption. A year ago, the operation to transform Ciudadanos from a regional Catalan party into a rival to both Podemos—for those wanting generational change—and the Popular Party—for a non-Rajoy option on the right—had not begun. It did so shortly thereafter and by April, it was not only a four-way race but nose-to-nose.
The roller coaster continued over the summer and autumn months, but the latest polls say that is still the likely outcome, with Podemos and Ciudadanos scooping up perhaps 100 seats that will be lost by the Popular Party and the Spanish Socialist Party, although the Podemos total will be split four ways between the national brand and regional groups in Catalonia, Valencia and Galicia. Thanks to Spain's electoral laws, which prohibit polls being published in the five days prior to an election, there is an added element of polling uncertainty and whispered tension. Leaked internal PP data and tracking from Andorra suggest a last minute Podemos surge, perhaps pushing Mr. Iglesias and his colleagues all the way up into second place—Mr. Rajoy was filmed admitting as much to Mrs. Merkel on Friday—but five days ago Podemos was back in fourth place, and had been in every poll since the beginning of October.
The PP is the party of older Spaniards. Spain's population is ageing over the long-term, and has aged since 2011. Data from the National Statistics Institute (INE) show 40% of voters are now aged over 55, while 22% are under 34. Older people are much more likely to go out and vote on election day. A recent Metroscopia analysis showed Podemos does well among the youngest Spaniards, and Ciudadanos among the working and professional adults from 35-54. 60-year-old Mariano Rajoy is the oldest of the five leading candidates for Prime Minister, and first became a regional MP in Galicia in 1981. On that day, Pablo Iglesias had just turned three and Albert Rivera was not yet two. So Mr. Rajoy has been selling experience and a steady hand on the tiller of government, and the two youngsters hawking youth and change.
So coalitions or minority government beckon.
The three most talked about options have been a grand establishment coalition between the PP and the PSOE, which would ring well with older voters, Ciudadanos abstaining to allow the PP to govern in minority, or what the Popular Party labelled a "Super Reds" anti-PP deal along the lines of what happened in some of Spain's major cities after the local elections in May. Despite his campaign team briefing a grand deal with the PSOE could be on the cards—with Susana Diaz in Andalusia taking over from Pedro Sánchez—Mr. Rajoy poured cold water on the idea on Friday, perhaps stung by Mr. Sánchez's personal insults during their TV debate on Monday. On Friday evening, Albert Rivera admitted Ciudadanos would abstain to allow the party with the most seats to govern, and the PP has topped the polls all year. Two days before the ballot, Mr. Rivera might have just shot himself in the foot among those who wanted right but not Rajoy or change but not Podemos.
The first vote of confidence in the new candidate for Prime Minister is set to take place in mid-January, in theory. If Spaniards vote for greater confusion—the latest CIS data showed 40% were undecided—and the parties cannot decide who should try, the Spanish Constitution says King Felipe would have to get involved. The Constitution does not stipulate which candidate the King would have to ask to become Prime Minister. If no one can agree by the middle of March, a new general election would be called.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. On Sunday, Spaniards vote. Between left and right, old and new, young and old, and clarity and confusion.