MADRID – Europe's political upheavals are knocking on Spain's door. Two upstart parties that hardly registered one year ago are mounting an unprecedented challenge to the governing Popular Party and the main opposition Socialist Party — which for four decades have dominated Spanish politics.
A poll published Sunday in El Pais placed the radical-left Podemos ("We Can") and the grass-roots movement Ciudadanos ("Citizens") roughly neck-and-neck with their established rivals ahead of next month's local and regional elections. The four were separated by less than three percentage points.
It's the latest in a political sea change seen across Europe — from Greece to Britain — as voters express frustration with traditional parties struggling to reverse economic hard times brought on by the continent's financial crisis.
"The political effects of the crisis are going to be long-lasting," said Antonio Roldan of think-tank Eurasia Group. "There is definitely a deep transformation."
Greece's Syriza government — a new coalition of the radical left and nationalist right — was elected in January on promises to scrap the austerity measures imposed in return for Greece's two international bailouts, worth a total of 240 billion euros ($253 billion). Hard bargaining with Greece's creditors has made Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' government popular, with many Greeks saying they have regained a sense of national pride.
In France's local elections last month, voters turned their back on the governing Socialists who recorded their fourth electoral defeat since President Francois Hollande took power in 2012. The government's failure to revive the ailing economy and lower the 10 percent unemployment rate sent voters to the right, with the far-right National Front winning 22 percent of the vote.
Britain's political future is hard to predict ahead of a May 7 general election. British elections have for decades delivered majority governments for either the center-right Conservatives or the left-leaning Labour Party, but polls indicate that voters are defecting in droves to alternatives, including the separatist Scottish National Party and the anti-immigration UK Independence Party. After several years of economic turbulence and government spending cuts, many people are disaffected with the way traditional parties have handled the economy, the public health system, immigration and relations with the rest of Europe.
In Spain, the European Union's fifth-largest economy, where national elections are due by the end of the year, an unemployment rate of almost 24 percent and a series of political corruption scandals have fueled discontent and opened a door for new groups promising change.
The two newcomers are young and brash, with leaders in their mid-30s. By contrast, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is 60.
Podemos, which has links to Greece's Syriza, is not only offering something different — it looks different. The party's rise is greatly due to the charisma of its pony-tailed leader, Pablo Iglesias, a 36-year-old political science professor. From the working class Madrid neighborhood of Vallecas, Iglesias prefers jeans and rolled-up shirt sleeves to the usual suit and tie of political leaders.
And Iglesias doesn't pull his punches. He says Spain is "run by the butlers of the rich" and that the economy must serve the people. That kind of talk is commonly heard on Spanish streets.
Fellow newcomer Ciudadanos, a centrist party whose name means "Citizens," grew out of a gathering of Catalan intellectuals. It, too, has benefited from a popular and eloquent leader — 35-year-old Albert Rivera. The party offers a "third way" between the traditional parties, but pledges to be just as tough on corruption.
"Podemos and Ciudadanos are ... putting pressure on the traditional parties to rejuvenate and end the string of corruption cases," said Juan Hidalgo, a 32-year-old salesman in Madrid. "It's a good thing that new parties with new ideas can be decisive when it comes to forming a government."
With the new parties potentially playing the role of kingmaker in this year's elections, investors are watching Spain closely for signs that political turmoil — particularly from a surging Podemos — may send new financial shockwaves through the 19-nation eurozone, said Antonio Barroso, a London-based analyst with Teneo Intelligence, a political and business risk consulting firm.
"Investors just don't want to see another Greece, to put it bluntly," he said.
Hatton contributed from Lisbon, Portugal. Jorge Sainz and Ciaran Giles in Madrid and Jill Lawless in London also contributed.