Spain’s elections on Sunday will be a four-horse race, after an exceptionally bitter campaign. This is a radical shift from the established two-party system, alternating between centre-left and right-wing camps. But it is not as profound as appeared likely just last January.
Five years of painful economic, social and existential crises, linked to severe austerity policies, had propelled a brand new leftist movement, Podemos, to the top of the polls.
Its anti-system stance had captured the public mood. Many were utterly disenchanted with the complacency of the ruling conservative Partido Popular (PP) and their perpetual rivals, the centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE). Neither seemed capable of solving the country's chronic problems and both are deeply tainted by endemic corruption. It briefly seemed as if the old order might be swept away.
Several factors have combined to quash that prospect – for now. The most significant has been the rapid rise of a fourth state-wide political force, Ciudadanos. A reforming centre-right party, it eschews the fusty authoritarianism of the PP and appeals to moderate voters who generally swing between the PP and PSOE.
The Spanish economy's apparent recovery has also calmed electoral volatility, bringing some comfort to the PP. And the young PSOE leader, Pedro Sánchez, has grown in authority to become a credible alternative to the PP's wily leader, prime minister Mariano Rajoy.
Most final opinion polls show a four-way split, with the PP leading, and Ciudadanos and then Podemos chasing the PSOE for second place. No overall majority is likely. Rajoy is courting Ciudadanos’s backing for a minority PP government. But Ciudadanos insists that to support either establishment party would “betray” its voters.
Any new government faces great challenges, especially the headlong Catalan drive towards independence. Ciudadanos, fiercely opposed to Catalan (and Basque) nationalism, may find common cause with the PP after all.
The only certainty is that no likely outcome offers consensus and stability at an historic moment when the very nature of the Spanish state is in question.