Andalusia vote a key test for Podemos

Polls opened on Sunday in Andalusia, one of the poorest parts of Spain, in a regional vote that will be a key test of anti-austerity party Podemos ahead of the country's most unpredictable general election in decades.

Andalusia vote a key test for Podemos
Andalusian polling stations opened on Sunday morning. Photo: Christina Quicler/ AFP

"Everything is ready to fill the ballot boxes with mauve!" the left-wingPodemos, said on its Twitter account, referring to the party colour, as voting got underway.

The election is an important warm-up for contender Podemos — which islooking to match the feat of its ally Syriza in Greece — and also another upstart contender, the centre-right Ciudadanos.

"Everyone is waiting to see if the emerging forces are going to get a verygood result. This will be the test," a well-placed member of the conservative Popular Party, which currently governs Spain, told AFP.

Recent years of recession and corruption scandals make the southern regionof farms and tourist beaches a prime testing ground for Spain's new political dynamic, transformed by the economic crisis and ensuing budget austerity measures.

Now the two parties that have taken turns to govern Spain since the 1980sface the rival pair of surging protest movements in a dress rehearsal for the national polls due around November.

Greece's Syriza won elections in January on a wave of discontent abouteconomic cuts imposed during an economic crisis — the same trend that has pushed Podemos to the top of the polls in Spain.

Podemos was buoyed by Syriza's victory, but was given pause for thought bythe tense ongoing squabbles between Syriza and European powers over Greece's debt.

Upstart contenders

In Andalusia, "everyone will interpret the results as if it were a firstround in the general elections," said Anton Losada, a political scientist at Santiago de Compostela university.

"That is going to happen with the Andalusian election and will happen againwith the other local and regional elections in May."

The main opposition Socialist Party, in power in Andalusia since 1982, isseeking re-election against the Popular Party.

Polls indicate neither of the giants will win an absolute majority in theregional parliament from Andalusia's 6.5 million voters.

The winner may have to strike an alliance with Podemos or Ciudadanos.That could foreshadow what coalitions may later be forged to govern Spain, since polls indicate the national election may also fail to hand one party an absolute majority.

Andalusia was among the regions hardest hit by the collapse of Spain'shousing market in 2008. Its regional unemployment rate is the highest in the country at 34.2 percent.

Socialist leaders there, along with certain labour union representatives,have been hit by a series of corruption scandals.

The Socialists have fallen out with their current coalition partners, theUnited Left, and look set to lose seats in Sunday's vote, according to polls.

The Popular Party is also losing support there, blamed by voters forhardship under the economic cuts its national government has imposed.

Enter Podemos and Ciudadanos, which rank third and fourth in polls ofvoting intentions in Andalusia with around 11 and 15 percent of the vote respectively.

Highest unemployment

Formed just in January 2014, Podemos has also topped recent national polls.

Its pony-tailed leader Pablo Iglesias, 36, vows to end austerity and doaway with what he brands a corrupt political elite.
But his alleged links to Venezuelan leaders — regular bogeymen in the Spanish media — and his support for Syriza threaten to put off some voters.

Ready to scoop them up is Ciudadanos, which started as a Catalananti-independence party and then expanded onto the national stage in recent months. It shares Podemos' stance against corruption but strikes a more moderate tone.

"In Ciudadanos, we want justice. What Podemos wants is revenge," saidCiudadanos' leader Albert Rivera, 35, in an interview in El Mundo newspaper this week.

"We could have a more diverse Andalusian parliament, with new politicalforces getting in, and their support could become necessary to govern," said Jaime Ferri Dura, a political scientist at Madrid's Complutense University.