SEVILLA, SPAIN - MARCH 20: A Podemos (We Can) supporter ties a Spanish Republican flag before a political campaign rally on March 20, 2015 in Sevilla, Spain. Podemos (We Can), the anti-austerity left-wing party emerged out of popular movements and officially formed last year will face its first test on March 22 during the Regional Elections in the Southern province of Andalucia. Podemos (We can) will measure up its support ahead of the Spanish General Elections scheduled by the end of this year. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
A Podemos supporter holds a Spanish Republican flag before a rally in Seville this year © Getty

One sports a pony tail and leather wrist-bands, the other wears skinny ties and hipster jackets. One is from Madrid, the other from Barcelona. One promises to end the age of austerity, the other plans to set the markets free.

Yet for all their differences, Pablo Iglesias and Albert Rivera have something in common: millions of voters look to them as the standard bearers for political change in Spain — and are set to back their upstart parties in the country’s general election on Sunday.

Mr Iglesias, leader of the anti-establishment Podemos movement, and Mr Rivera, leader of the centrist Ciudadanos party, are expected to win 17-19 per cent of the vote each. Together, the newcomers are likely to control about a third of the seats in the next Spanish parliament — effectively putting an end to three decades of political dominance by the centre-right Popular party and the centre-left Socialists. Barring a last-minute surprise, the two men will have a crucial say in who governs Spain after December 20.

Analysts argue that both Podemos and Ciudadanos draw their electoral strength from the same sense of voter frustration and anger with Spain’s establishment parties. The recent economic crisis, coupled with a series of damaging corruption scandals, have not just eroded public faith in the PP and the Socialists but also created demand for new political actors. In the words of Jorge Galindo, editor of the Politikon website, Podemos and Ciudadanos have offered voters “two different flavours of change” for Spain.

In the final week of the campaign, Mr Iglesias and Mr Rivera have criss-crossed the nation, filling sports arenas and concert halls and sparking scenes of adulation normally reserved for rock stars. The Podemos leader, in particular, has drawn vast crowds wherever he appears. On Sunday night, facing more than 10,000 supporters in a Madrid tennis stadium, a visibly emotional Mr Iglesias exclaimed: “The next four years are not just a legislature. They are the start of a new era.” The crowd, as always, responded with chants of “Si, se puede” – Yes, we can.

Mr Rivera has a more low-key style, but he too has excited the Spanish electorate in ways that have eluded the establishment parties. In recent polls and surveys, the Ciudadanos leader has been consistently identified as the most popular politician in the country. Spanish media refer to the clean-cut former lawyer and champion swimmer as the “perfect son-in-law”.

On the campaign trail, Mr Iglesias and Mr Rivera have formed a symbiotic relationship. Over the past few weeks, the two men have faced each other in a series of television encounters and public debates. They have swapped street-style handshakes and man hugs — and tried as hard as possible to train their fire not on each other but on the PP and the Socialists. Analysts say their rapport is underpinned both by political calculation and generational understanding: Both were born in the late 1970s (Mr Iglesias is 37, Mr Rivera 36), which means they have no direct experience either of the Franco dictatorship or Spain’s fraught transition to democracy.

“Both are keen to plant the idea in the minds of voters that this election is a contest between the old and the new. But they are not competing for the same voters. So it makes sense for them to form a strategic alliance,” says Pablo Simón, a professor of political science at the Carlos III University in Madrid.

In some crucial areas, the two parties have a common outlook: both Podemos and Ciudadanos want to reform the Spanish constitution, overhaul the country’s electoral system and de-politicise the judiciary and bureaucracy. Both have made the fight against corruption the centrepiece of their campaign. Curiously, both Mr Iglesias and Mr Rivera are fond of citing Denmark as a role model for Spain.

But the differences are also clear. The founders of Podemos mostly hail from the social sciences faculty and the world of left-wing activism. Ciudadanos leaders typically started their careers in the private sector — prompting Mr Iglesias to mock the group as the “party of the Ibex-35”, Spain’s stock market index.

“In economic terms, Ciudadanos is very much in the tradition of other European liberal parties: they want to minimise the role of the state and reject the idea of industrial policy. Podemos wants the state to play a bigger role in the economy and they have called for an end to, and even a reversal of, privatisations,” says Mr Simón.

Ciudadanos is the older of the two parties, but was originally confined to the region of Catalonia. It went national only last year — in part inspired by the example set by Podemos. “Podemos channelled the first wave of political indignation. What they did was to give back to a frustrated electorate the idea of voting,” says Alberto Penadés, a professor of sociology at the University of Salamanca. Podemos, he argues, effectively cleared the path for Ciudadanos — by encouraging disgruntled voters to reconnect with politics, and showing the viability of a political alternative to the PP and the Socialists.

Whatever the final outcome on Sunday, both Mr Iglesias and Mr Rivera say they are determined to change Spanish politics for good. As the Ciudadanos leader said this week: “We didn’t come all this way so that things can stay the same.”

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