Susana Díaz steps off the Socialist Party's campaign bus in Ubrique oozing confidence. Striding through this small, whitewashed town in the mountains inland of Spain's southwest coast, she warmly greets star-struck locals, shaking the hands of some, hugging and kissing others.
Andalusia is the heartland of the Spanish Socialist Party and it has governed the vast southern region for the past 33 years without interruption.
This dominance is reflected by the self-assurance of the 40-year-old Díaz, the premier of the Andalusia region. One moment she is deftly sidestepping a man whose scowl suggests he won’t be voting for her party, the next she is letting an elderly lady touch her slightly protruding belly.
“I’m four-and-a-half months,” Díaz proudly tells the pensioner, when asked how her pregnancy is going. “The baby’s growing!”
But before her child is born, Díaz is hoping for another piece of good news: a resounding victory for her party in Sunday’s Andalusia regional election.
Polls suggest that the Socialists will indeed prevail again – they are leading the conservative Popular Party (PP), which governs Spain. But this election is a more open contest than Díaz's swagger would suggest, with her regional administration having to battle record unemployment, corruption scandals and the emergence of new political rivals.
Clinching a majority in the regional parliament looks beyond her party’s reach and speculation is buzzing about potential governing coalitions.
This is the first chapter in a hectic electoral year for Spain. Further regional and municipal elections are scheduled for May and a general election is expected by the end of 2015.
"This is going to be the most important year since the transition to democracy," said Ignacio Urquizu, a sociologist at Madrid's Complutense University. "It's a year of deep changes: for the political party system and for our institutions."
One hundred kilometres away from Ubrique, in the city of Cádiz, a very different electoral event is taking place in the Edificio de Sindicatos. A run-down old building which houses local labour unions, it has also become a base for protest movements. Outside it a mock coffin is propped up against the wall, with the slogan “Andalusia government, RIP” on the lid. A banner hanging from a window says: “Cádiz politicians are useless!”
Inside, supporters of the new party Podemos, or "We can", are gathered. Formed just over a year ago, its anti-austerity, anti-corruption message has taken it to the top of national opinion polls, emulating its Greek ally, Syriza. Led by 36-year-old university professor Pablo Iglesias, its voters are disillusioned with what they see as the interchangeable policies of the traditional left and right.
“The Socialist Party is not socialist at all, it’s not even a left-wing party,” says Luis Miguel Montes, an 18-year-old schoolboy at the meeting.
“Here in Andalusia, it has applied policies that are nearer to the right.” Others offer similar views, angry at a seemingly endless flow of corruption cases, both in Andalusia and across Spain.
One scandal in the southern region has seen senior members of the Socialist Party, including two former Andalusia premiers, investigated for allegedly siphoning off €136 million from a public fund created for crisis-ridden companies.
Lack of investment
Jesús Rodríguez, a young candidate for Podemos in Sunday’s election, says that a lack of industrial investment and structural problems have held back Andalusia’s economy. Neither regional nor national governments have managed to resolve a chronic labour problem: Andalusia’s jobless rate is much higher than the national figure of 24 per cent, rising to 42 percent around Cádiz.
“A victory for Podemos in Andalusia is a first step towards victory across Spain for us,” he says. “It’s our first test, the first time we’ve presented ourselves as a party of government.”
Currently placed a strong third in Andalusia in polls, Podemos is not expected to win on Sunday, but if it manages a good result in the Socialists' southern stronghold, it would make a major statement nationwide. According to Rodríguez, Podemos's performance throughout this year could also make waves across Europe, due to the party's close links to the new government in Greece.
“We think that a triumph for [Alexis] Tsipras with his economic programme in Greece would open the doors to an electoral triumph for Podemos and a change for southern Europe,” he says. However, Podemos is not the only new contender with a young leadership in the Andalusia elections. Close behind it in polls is Ciudadanos, or “Citizens”.
Founded nearly a decade ago, it had until recently focused solely on Catalonia, staunchly opposing the north-eastern region's ongoing campaign to gain independence from Spain. But its 35-year-old leader, Albert Rivera, has recently taken the party's platform nationwide, successfully presenting it as a fresh, centrist alternative to the Socialists and PP.
If polls are borne out in the Andalusia election, analysts believe it will confirm that Spain is on the brink of a major political transformation.
“The two-party system which has dominated this country for the last 35 years looks like it’s going to change,” said sociologist Ignacio Urquizu.
“These new political forces will exert pressure to correct everything that they think is wrong with our democracy, in areas such as corruption and inequality. It’s the starting point for a new period in our democracy.”