- The start of the formal campaign leads up to the November 20 election
- Polls suggest Popular party candidate Mariano Rajoy will become prime minister
- Spain is currently in the throes of a significant economic crisis
Spain's parliamentary campaign formally begins Friday, after which voters appear poised to make opposition conservative candidate Mariano Rajoy the next prime minister of the economically embattled nation.
While there has been political action in recent months, the official, ramped-up campaign begins overnight. It will be followed by regular rallies, posters popping up all around Spain and even more intense campaigning, all leading up to the November 20 election.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, from the Socialist party, has been damaged politically by a continuing crisis that has left Spain with a 21.5% unemployment rate and nearly five million people without jobs.
Zapatero once had vowed to serve out the full length of his term through March 2012. But he ended up calling for early elections and announcing that he would not seek a third term.
Numerous opinion polls indicate the 56-year-old Rajoy and his Popular party hold a double-digit lead -- from 10 to 15 percentage points -- over the Socialists. He has proposed government cutbacks and lowering business taxes to spur job growth.
"Ours is a project for all Spaniards who know that it is time for a government that is able to rise to the occasion," Rajoy said in presenting his party's campaign platform earlier this week.
A Cabinet minister between 1996 and 2004 under Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Rajoy lost twice to Zapatero, in 2004 and 2008.
But his conservative party swept to victory in regional and local elections last May, presaging what polls predict will be a triumph the third time around.
Rajoy said recently that, if elected, he would push through a 100-day shock plan of "austerity and efficiency" so that national, regional and local governments coordinate to avoid duplication of spending.
The stakes are high since financial markets have battered Spain, forcing the government to pay higher interest, or yields, on bonds that it sells to raise cash to run the daily business of government. Many international analysts say Spain could be at even further risk, along with Italy and Portugal, if troubled Greece defaults on its debt.
It is difficult, and abnormal, climate for voters. Many of them became accustomed to Spain's previously rapid annual GDP growth, highway and infrastructure improvements, and ample social services, like its national health care system. The construction and real estate sector fueled those boom years, when the government once proudly stated that Spain had the world's eighth largest economy.
But things turned sour when the global economy took a nose-dive, with cheap credit suddenly elusive and the only growth seemingly seen at unemployment lines.
Rajoy's chief challenger is Socialist candidate Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba. The 60-year-old served under Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and most recently under Zapatero, rising to the positions of deputy prime minister and interior minister.
"We can't just do a policy of budget cuts," Rubalcaba said this week when presenting his party's platform. "We need public sector investment to create jobs in the framework of the European Union."
Both candidates are viewed as not particularly charismatic but competent managers with experience in various governments, according to Fernando Fernandez, a professor at the IE Business School in Madrid.
One key for voters, Fernandez said, is that Rajoy is associated with a period of economic growth from his service under Aznar. Rubalcaba, meanwhile, is linked more to the Socialist government that has presided over the current economic crisis.
The two main candidates are due to hold a single, face-to-face nationally televised debate on November 7.
Numerous smaller parties -- including nationalist parties from the northern Basque region and the northeastern region of Catalonia -- are expected to win seats in the 350-seat Spanish parliament.
Many political analysts wonder if Rajoy's party might achieve a majority in the election. If so, that would mean it will not have to make deals with smaller parties to stay in power.
The Basque terrorist group ETA, which has figured prominently in past campaigns due to its role in fatal bombings or assassinations as part of its drive for Basque independence, announced last month the "definitive cessation of its armed activity."
Yet the move by the group, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union as well as Spain, has barely resonated with voters. Polls show they are much more worried about the economy, and how it affects their households.
That angst has been evident over the five months of economic-driven protests across Spain known as the May 15 movement. This have helped keep the crisis at the forefront on the political agency, but many analysts wonder what clout the mostly-young demonstrators will have at the ballot box.