MADRID – Spain's 25 million voters go into an unprecedented repeat election June 26. Politicians chosen in an inconclusive December ballot failed to agree on which of them should form a government, placing Spain in the hands of a caretaker government since then and leaving some major issues unresolved.
Here is a look at the main topics on the political agenda.
With nearly 5 million people out of work, it's not surprising that polls consistently show unemployment to be the public's top concern.
The conservative Popular Party is hoping its record on pulling the economy back from the abyss during the recent eurozone financial crisis will work in its favor, though not all of what the party promised four years ago has materialized.
Spain emerged from recession in late 2013 and is now one of the European Union's fastest growing economies. The PP made reducing unemployment one of its priorities in government over the past four years. But at 21 percent the jobless rate remains the second-highest in the European Union after Greece and little different from what it was when the PP came to power in 2011.
On top of that, Spain under the PP has failed to live up to another promise — bringing the budget deficit below the EU ceiling of 3 percent. EU authorities have extended the 2016 deadline for that target, but Spain faces a possible fine and orders from Brussels to apply more austerity measures.
"The PP has not rallied the economy, nor brought about a real recovery in employment," says Political Science Professor Jaime Ferri Dura, of Madrid's Complutense University. "Spanish families are still heavily in debt, mistreated, facing a lot of hardship and with a lot of unemployment."
Hardly a day passes without some new development in corruption scandals involving political parties or people associated with them. The incessant scandals have mostly affected the caretaker Popular Party government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and contributed to its loss of votes and seats in the December election compared with 2011.
Nevertheless, polls indicate the party is regaining ground and that its followers may be willing to overlook the myriad corruption scandals plaguing the party in order to keep left-of-center parties out of government.
Chief among the PP's woes is the so-called Gurtel case involving a kickbacks-for-contracts scheme that is one of the biggest political party scandals in Spanish history. Long-time party treasurer Luis Barcenas — now in jail — confessed there had always been a scheme of illegal contributions and donations to the party and that top officials have always been aware of it. The PP denies it has done anything illegal.
Then there's former International Monetary Fund chief Rodrigo Rato, who is under investigation for alleged tax fraud, money laundering and corruption. Rato was a leading figure in the Popular Party and was economy minister under former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
The Socialists are defending themselves in two scandals that are currently smaller in scale than those engulfing the PP. Former Socialist party members, including former regional leaders, allegedly ran a fraudulent scheme of funneling public funds for severance payments to companies supposedly in financial trouble. Separately, they allegedly paid subsidies for professional training courses that never took place.
All four main parties are now promising to seriously tackle corruption should they get into office.
The nagging issue of independence for economically and politically powerful Catalonia has divided that region and soured political ties with the rest of Spain. It was also one of the main obstacles to an agreement being reached to form a government between the Socialists and the new far-left Podemos following the December election.
The northeastern region's government, based in Barcelona, intends pushing ahead with preparations to break from Spain though it knows that without agreement with Madrid and no international support, secession is a pipedream.
Most people in Catalonia, while not necessarily agreeing with independence, feel the region's voters should be able to hold a referendum on it. The referendum idea is backed by Podemos but rejected outright by other national-level parties, who support negotiations to devolve more power to Catalonia.
Cracks developing within the region's ruling coalition of conservatives, leftists and radical leftists have also weakened the independence drive.
Antonio Barroso, a London-based analyst with the Teneo Intelligence political risk consultancy, says that while the issue is a little deflated now and may not be on every voter's mind, " it will come back" to the forefront for whatever party, or parties, take office.
FED UP VOTERS
The protracted and ultimately fruitless negotiations to try to form a government following the last election left Spaniards disillusioned by their politicians. Experts and polls suggest the abstention rate could rise from the 27 percent rate in December, though perhaps not by much.
Many people, Ferri says, feel that they have enough to worry about, that they had already voted and that it is the politicians' job to agree on a government. "At stake this time will be voting for someone to get us out of this impasse," Ferri says. "Voters will be thinking about who will best be able to do this. Other issues like unemployment and corruption are important but not as much as they should be, and this will likely benefit the PP."
Hatton contributed from Lisbon, Portugal.