A symbol of Spain's rampant urbanisation and corruption, the region of Murcia is the ideal ground for the new centrist party Ciudadanos, which could hold the balance of power after Sunday's general elections.
“Here we are the champions of corruption,” said Miguel Garaulet, the chief candidate of Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) for this Mediterranean region of 1.4 million people in southeastern Spain, as he headed for a campaign meeting in the capital, also called Murcia.
Founder of a telecommunications company, Garaulet, 47, said he “jumped in to end everything that's wrong with the region.
“I've created wealth and jobs, now I want to do the same thing with the state institutions.”
He pointed to an unfinished 10-floor building.
“Murcia is a town of skeletons,” he said. “This should have been a hotel but they closed down the site for a violation of the town planning rules.”
Speculation in the housing market which sparked the 2008 economic crisis in Spain was particularly unrestrained in Murcia – and it has paid the price.
The regional government debt represents 27.5 percent of the GDP and about 40 corruption scandals have erupted in its 45 municipalities.
The conservative Popular Party (PP) of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, which has held power in the region for 20 years, has paid as well.
It lost its absolute majority in Murcia in regional elections in May, and in order to remain in power it had to reluctantly seek the help of Ciudadanos, which won 12.5 percent of the vote, one of its best results in any region.
Ciudadanos has demanded that investigations be opened into several corruption scandals, and the PP leader in the region has agreed to resign if he is charged with misappropriation of public funds.
Ciudadanos hopes to double its result in Murcia at the December 20th general elections.
The party, which was born in Catalonia 10 years ago to fight separatism in the northeastern region, launched itself onto the national stage late last year by proposing “reasonable change” amid the rise of the leftist and more radical anti-austerity Podemos party.
Opinion polls now put it in a position to deprive the PP of its absolute majority on Sunday and impose its programme on the next government in Madrid.
One poll, released late last month, indicated Ciudadanos are locked in a virtual three-way tie with the PP and the Socialists.
“Markets and festivals are the best times to explain our programme,” said Garaulet. “Our big advantage is that we come from civil society, we know its problems.”
José Moreno, a 47-year-old grocer, said he is fed up with corruption.
“I will vote for them (Ciudadanos) if they get rid of these thieves”, he said in a market in Totana, a town of 30,000 people where two former mayors have been charged and a third is in prison, while Garaulet distributed leaflets with his party's programme and a photo of its leader Albert Rivera.
Rivera, a 36-year-old telegenic lawyer, initially appealed to young, educated, city-dwelling voters, but has sought to diversify his support base to target the middle-class.
“We are trying to modernise political communication, we avoid desks and orchestrated applause, we are betting on the media and social media,” said Fernando de Paramo, a 27-year-old journalist.
Without the infrastructure or the financial means of traditional political parties, Ciudadanos has put in place a network of 15,000 cyberactivists who release messages on Twitter and Facebook.
In Murcia, it's Jose Luis Ros, 26, who oversees the network.
He receives messages from the campaign team and forwards them to his colleagues in the social media teams.
“We tweet a lot,” he said, as he posted on Twitter the results of a favourable opinion poll.
Rivera is face of the campaign, but “it's a team effort”, said Juan Fernando Hernandez, the regional coordinator, the head of a team of 40 people who rely on hundreds of volunteers.
After working in marketing for multinational companies, Hernandez decided to put his experience to the service of the young party.
Hernandez is indignant when his opponents, especially the PP, ridicule the lack of political experience of the “apprentices” at Ciudadanos.
“We have experience of private business. We are efficient, productive and we know how to motivate teams,” he said. “The other parties find themselves faced with a different kind of competition, more professional, and that makes them nervous”.
By Daniel Bosque