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MADRID – In the main plaza of a wealthy suburban bastion of Spain's ruling Popular Party, volunteers hand out campaign pamphlets trumpeting economic gains ahead of Sunday's national election. Sipping an espresso nearby, toy company executive Miguel Sanchez describes the new Mercedes-Benz company car he'll soon get, thanks to rising sales for his firm following years of tough times.
Downtown in a trash-strewn blue-collar stronghold of the Socialist Party, unemployed lawyer Maria Uribe rails against sky-high joblessness, a seemingly endless string of political corruption cases, tax hikes and public service cutbacks pushed through Parliament in the past four years.
The differing views from Sanchez and Uribe on the state of Spain reflect deep divisions among voters about their country and its economic fortunes as it approaches a crucial ballot that will decide whether the government will stay conservative, head toward the center or veer sharply left.
An economic recovery has been underway since late 2013 in a nation that almost imploded in Europe's financial crisis. But the upswing is coupled with 21 percent unemployment — the second highest jobless rate behind Greece in the 28-nation European Union.
Despite their opposing perspectives, Sanchez and Uribe have something in common: Both plan to help transform the nation's political landscape by casting ballots for upstart parties set to splinter Spain's traditional two-party dominance into a four-party system.
Sanchez thinks the business-friendly, centrist Ciudadanos party will do the best job steering the nation's delicate economy. He sees it "giving stability and fiscal clarity for the government, even if it has to make a coalition deal with another party."
Uribe plans to cast her vote for the radical left Podemos party as a message to the Socialists that they betrayed their roots and are now "made up of middle class bureaucrats who have become accustomed to power."
Polls show Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party set to win the most votes, but falling far short of the tally needed to retain the majority it holds in Parliament — meaning it would have to ally with another party, most likely Ciudadanos. Another possibility would be a matchup between the Socialists and Podemos.
Disenchantment has driven once-faithful voters away from the country's traditional Popular and Socialist parties that have alternated ruling the nation since 1982, following Spain's return to democracy after decades of dictatorship under Gen. Francisco Franco.
Many blame the Socialists for pulling Spain to the brink of an economic precipice following a lengthy period of robust economic growth. And they fault the Popular Party for delivering a recovery that has included meager job gains, as well as unpopular austerity cuts seen by many as seriously damaging the Spanish welfare state.
"What you are seeing right now is the consequence of the fact that Spain is going through an unprecedented transition of political change," said Antonio Barroso, a London-based analyst with the Teneo Intelligence political risk consultancy. "It's because of the combination of the economic crisis and the rejection of the political establishment, and it's ushering in an era of new and old politicians."
Chief among them are the pony-tailed Pablo Iglesias of Podemos and Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos. Both say Spain shouldn't be content with its nine consecutive quarters of economic growth following back-to-back recessions during the 2008-2013 period and unemployment that reached a peak of 26.9 percent in the first quarter of 2014.
There are certainly bright spots in the economy, chiefly a lack of the prevailing fear just a few years ago that Spain's economy would crash-and-burn — and take the eurozone, comprised of 19 EU nations that share a common currency, down with it. Instead, Spanish exports are up due to ruthless cost cutting by companies and a drop in the value of the euro against the dollar.
Businesses and families have benefited from lower oil prices, car sales are up and the important tourism sector benefited from the Arab Spring uprisings, which kept visitors away from North African destinations on the Mediterranean Sea.
But even though Rajoy is claiming credit for creating 1 million new jobs, economists say most are for Spaniards hired on short-term contracts with low pay usually lasting a few months. These jobs also don't carry the same level of benefits guaranteed under the law for the country's long-term labor contracts. Entry level salaries for young workers who used to make about 1,000 euros per month in 2008 are down about 30 percent.
And the workforce has actually shrunk since Rajoy took office — thanks to Spaniards who left the country to work abroad, and the legions of long-term unemployed no longer seeking work and those who have retired early. The European Union says child poverty is up in Spain and stories abound of grandparents using their pensions to help support their adult children and grandchildren.
Topping off the bad news are "awful stories of how companies shut down and disappear and workers cannot collect their benefits," said Gayle Allard, an economist and labor market specialist with Madrid's IE Business School. "You put all of this together and you say, 'Is this good or is this bad?' I don't know whether I am optimistic or pessimistic."
Amada Penalosa is so irate with the situation in her country that she's taking a stand from Grenoble, France. She moved there in 2009 with her biochemist husband and their three children as jobs for scientific investigators in Spain started drying up.
"We thought we'd be here for three years, but then the crisis came and we're still in France," Penalosa said. "We hope things will change because we want to return for our children to grow up in their culture, surrounded by family."
Penalosa, like many expats, is frustrated with the bureaucratic process Spaniards who have left must endure to cast absentee ballots. More than 1 million are eligible, but activists estimate only 6 percent will send in absentee ballots and blame the low turnout on excessive red tape.
So Penalosa joined the "Maroon Wave" group of Spaniards helping to match expats with voters living in Spain not planning to show up at the polls.
In a campaign called "Rescue My Vote," citizens living in Spain who don't plan to vote are connected with expats who want to. It's then up to these new "couples" to make arrangements so the Spaniard at home casts a vote for the political party chosen by the person living abroad.
The group isn't encouraging people to vote for any particular party, but members don't hesitate to blame Spain's Popular and Socialist parties for setting up the cumbersome overseas voting system that hurts Spanish emigrants.
"It's the unemployment and the crisis that forced so many of us to leave the country," Penalosa said. "We're not saying what the solution is, but personally I think it's great that we have a situation now with new parties because it gives more options to the people."