Spain elections: Albert Rivera is the new boy in Spanish politics – and kingmaker in waiting

With four parties forecast to split the vote in Sunday’s general election, the old politics may be over

He is a former lawyer and champion swimmer, a man who once backed his fledgling party by appearing naked on campaign posters. But ahead of what promise to be the tightest Spanish elections in living memory this weekend, Albert Rivera has gone from upstart to potential kingmaker. 

The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, and the leader of the opposition PSOE, Pedro Sánchez, appeared in a televised debate on Monday night to convince voters to give them the keys to Moncloa, the seat of the Spanish government, this weekend. But many want change and see Mr Rivera as the man to bring it about. 

Mr Rajoy has ducked two previous televised debates, avoiding appearing alongside two younger rivals whose new parties have altered the political landscape. One is Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the left-wing Podemos, and the other is Mr Rivera, the 36-year-old leader of Ciudadanos, or “Citizens”, a party that had barely registered on the national consciousness as recently as January, but which could now hold the balance of power in Sunday’s general election.

A poll at the beginning of the year put Mr Rivera’s party on just 3 per cent. Eleven months on and the newspapers are full of election arithmetic and speculation about whether he will throw his support behind either of the main parties, and what price he will extract if he does.

Mr Rajoy’s centre-right PP and the leftist PSOE have dominated Spanish politics since the return to democracy in the late 1970s, swapping power regularly. Not so now. The financial crisis in which Spain was especially hard hit, a stream of high-profile corruption cases and an unemployment level of more than 20 per cent have proved too much for many Spaniards. 

Unless opinions change dramatically – yesterday’s polls were the last legally allowed to be published before Sunday’s vote – Mr Rivera will not become prime minister. Ciudadanos will gain about 60 seats in parliament, according to a poll in yesterday’s El País newspaper, but that could be enough to make him the hugely influential.

Urbane and pro-market, Mr Rivera is staunchly pro-union, despite the party originating in Catalonia. Indeed, if few have forgotten it, most have forgiven him for a poster when he launched Ciudadanos in 2006, his hands covering his modesty – barely. 

The PP has brought a return to economic growth and will probably be rewarded with most seats but it is likely to fall well short of a majority. Party officials have hinted that Ciudadanos could become their junior partner in government. For many keen to see the blunting of sharp spending cuts and an end to the corruption that has plagued public life, Ciudadanos is the natural junior partner.

Except that is, for Mr Rivera himself. He has suggested that he has no intention of joining a coalition led by the PP. “We know what happened in England and that to enter in a government that doesn’t believe in your changes can lead you to a situation of incoherence and disappointment,” Mr Rivera told The New York Times in a recent interview. Mr Rivera has called for “an open government with independents and ministers from other parties” although in a recent interview with Bloomberg, he was more circumspect. “I don’t want to be an uninvited guest in anyone’s government,” he said. “My goal is to govern.”

Indeed, Mr Rivera’s campaign venom has been reserved for the government, especially over corruption. The PP’s former treasurer is awaiting trial over allegations of making illegal payments to party officials and the party’s former economy minister, Rodrigo Rato, is under investigation in three corruption cases. At a local level, several PP officials have been jailed for being on the take.

“The old politics cannot begin a new political age,” Mr Rivera said during one of the leaders’ debates, at which Mr Rajoy’s deputy, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, stood in for the Prime Minister. “This is the reason Mr Rajoy is not here: he too received illegal payments.” Mr Rajoy has denied the allegations.

Today's El País poll suggested that Ciudadanos had slipped to 18.2 per cent, but that could still be enough to have a say on which party forms the next government.

Despite Mr Rajoy’s no-show at the first two debates, the PP is likely to emerge on top and win about 25 per cent of the vote, giving it about 110 seats, well below the 176 needed for a majority. Mr Rajoy has stuck relentlessly to his twin messages of economic competence – the Spanish economy is now among the fastest growing in Europe – and his refusal to countenance calls for independence from Catalonia. The PSOE is on track to win about 21 per cent and Podemos, which has seen a late surge, could gain about 19 per cent.