Who’s who: What you need to know about Spain’s five main electoral candidates

From Spain's outgoing socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, his conservative rival Pablo Casado to far-right leader Santiago Abascal, here are the five main candidates locking horns in Sunday's election.

Who's who: What you need to know about Spain's five main electoral candidates
Photos: AFP

From Spain's outgoing socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, his conservative rival Pablo Casado to far-right leader Santiago Abascal, here are the five main candidates locking horns in Sunday's election.

Pedro Sanchez

Pedro Sanchez on the campaign trail in Alicante. Photo: AFP

Opinion polls have tipped the 47-year-old outgoing socialist prime minister as the winner but without the majority he will need to govern.   

After having led the Socialist Party (PSOE) to one of its worst ever scores in the 2016 election, Sanchez took power in June from then conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy, toppled by a no-confidence motion.

He headed up a minority government with the support of a motley crew — far-left Podemos, Basque nationalists and separatist lawmakers from Catalonia, the northeastern region rocked by a failed secession bid in 2017.  

But the trained economist was forced to call early elections after Catalan lawmakers, with whom he had tried to negotiate over the independence crisis, refused to back his 2019 budget.

Leading an executive with the highest number of female ministers in Spanish history, Sanchez scored big in Europe soon after taking office by accepting to take in 630 migrants rescued by the Aquarius charity ship.

After years of devastating austerity, he also increased the minimum salary by 22 percent.


Pablo Casado

Pablo Casado greeting PP supporters at a rally in Granada. Photo: AFP

In July, the 38-year-old became the conservative Popular Party's (PP) youngest ever leader.

In charge of the party's communications under Rajoy, the law graduate with a ready smile has steered the PP further to the right.   

After December regional elections in southern Andalusia, his candidate leapt to power with the support of centre-right Ciudadanos and far-right party Vox, chasing the socialists from their traditional stronghold.

If a similar alliance took shape after Sunday's election, Casado — who has waged an aggressive campaign against Sanchez, accusing him of betraying Spain for talking with Catalan separatists — could become the youngest Spanish prime minister in history.

But opinion polls estimate the PP won't do well, caught as it is between Ciudadanos and Vox.

Pablo Iglesias

Pablo Iglesias at a campaign rally in Barcelona. Photo: AFP

The pony-tailed former politics professor is looking for a new lease of life for his far-left Podemos party which contributed to the end of two-party politics in 2015 along with Ciudadanos.

Born from the Indignados anti-austerity movement that shook Spain during the economic crisis, Podemos would like to forge a coalition with the socialists.

But it has been weakened by internal divisions, and opinion polls estimate it will only get half the parliamentary seats it won in 2016.   

Iglesias himself has also been hit by a controversy over a luxury villa the 40-year-old bought last year with his partner Irene Montero, deputy leader of Podemos.

Albert Rivera

Albert Rivera on the campaign trail in Malaga. Photo: AFP 

The centre-right Ciudadanos leader from Barcelona with a liberal economic and social programme fiercely defends the unity of Spain in the face of separatists in his native Catalonia.

The 39-year-old's Ciudadanos entered the national parliament with a bang in 2015, pledging to wipe out the traditional left-right divide.   

Rivera, who has since veered more to the right, now refuses any potential alliance with Sanchez if the latter wins after having tried — and failed — to enter a coalition with him in 2016.

He has instead reached out to the PP.

Santiago Abascal

Santiago Abascal at a rally in Burgos.. Photo: AFP

A former PP member who grew up in the northern Basque Country under the constant threat of separatist group ETA, Abascal has created a stir with his far-right party Vox.

Opinion polls say his ultra-nationalist party could get more than 10 percent of votes in a country with no far-right to speak of until now.   

Largely unknown until several months ago, Abascal, with his impeccably trimmed beard and piercing eyes, has benefited from his hardline stance against Catalan separatism.

Making regular headlines with controversial proposals, the 43-year-old criticises traditional media and has used social networks hugely for his campaign.

READ MORE: Why Spain's upcoming election will change Spanish immigration politics 

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Madrid puts off separatist talks over Catalan snap election

Spain's central government on Thursday said the announcement of snap elections in Catalonia would delay planned talks between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the region's separatist leadership.

Madrid puts off separatist talks over Catalan snap election
Catalan regional president Quim Torra (R) meets with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at the Palacio de Pedralbes in Barcelona on December 20, 2018.Photo: AFP

News that the regional election would be brought forward was announced by regional president Quim Torra on Wednesday but he did not give a date, suggesting some time after mid-March.

The date was brought forward following a major dispute between Catalonia's two ruling separatist parties, Together for Catalonia (JxC) and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).

The announcement came ahead of a key February 6 meeting in Barcelona between Torra and Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to lay the ground for talks on resolving the separatist conflict.

In response, Sanchez's office said the meeting would go ahead but that the negotiations would not begin until a new regional government was in place.   

“The government is hoping to be able to begin the dialogue after the Catalan people have spoken… as soon as the elections are over and there is a new (regional) government, then we will begin talking,” said a statement.

“The government remains willing to start the process of dialogue with the Catalan institutions to resolve the political conflict.”

The talks had been agreed as part of a deal with ERC in exchange for its support in getting Sanchez through a key investiture vote earlier this month.   

But the delay was swiftly denounced by the ERC as a “flagrant breach of the agreement which was completely irresponsible,” its party spokesman Sergi Sabria said.

Sanchez, who himself is in a fragile position at the head of a minority coalition government, still needs ERC's support to pass Spain's own much delayed national budget.

In a radio interview Thursday, Torra said he would bring up the right to self-determination and amnesty for the nine jailed Catalan separatist leaders when he meets Sanchez — both of which have already been rejected out of hand by the Socialist leader.