Mariano Rajoy: The leader of the PP since 2003, Rajoy led his party to a convincing victory at a general election held in November 2011. He supports a market-based economic model and has displayed a consistent commitment to carrying out the structural reforms required to ensure that Spain is economically competitive. Although his government has made significant progress in efforts to rein in a large fiscal deficit and bolster the country’s financial system, a far-reaching corruption scandal has reinforced a steep fall in the PP’s popular support fueled by public anger over austerity, and will pose an obstacle to reviving the party’s popularity ahead of the 2015 elections. Signs of an economic revival may be enough to produce a first-place finish for the PP, but the party is all but certain to lose its majority status, and Rajoy’s unyielding opposition to regional demands for autonomy will limit his prospects for gaining the backing of smaller regional parties whose support may be required to form a viable government.

People’s Party: Created through the merger of seven right-wing parties in 1977, the PP, known as the People’s Alliance until 1989, draws its support from the conservative middle and upper classes. After overcoming early leadership battles, the party made steady gains throughout the 1990s, forming a minority government following the 1996 elections and winning an outright majority of parliamentary seats in 2000. Under Prime Minister José María Aznar, the PP moved toward the center, and succeeded in securing approval of several important pieces of reform legislation. However, the PP remains staunchly nationalist, and loudly opposed the PSOE government’s concessions to the regions on the issue of autonomy and its efforts to negotiate a truce with Basque terrorists. Although committed to Spain’s membership in the EU and the euro zone, the PP’s nationalist inclinations could come to the fore if the EU attempts to impose policies from Brussels or makes other demands that are perceived to threaten Spain’s national sovereignty.

Spanish Socialist Workers Party: After winning a wholly unexpected victory in the March 2004 general election, the center-left PSOE took pains to reassure the markets that it had no radical changes in mind with regard to economic policy, and the party’s restraint factored into its re-election in 2008. The dire economic situation that emerged in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis exposed the limits of the PSOE’s commitment to steering a liberal course, and the party’s failure to unite behind unpopular but necessary reforms cost it politically. The PSOE suffered a devastating loss at the 2011 general election, at which its representation in the lower house of Parliament was reduced by 59 seats to 110. Although support for the party has rebounded since its defeat, the PSOE has failed to capitalize on the political difficulties of the PP government, and its prospects for returning to power after the 2015 elections are clouded by the emergence of two new anti-austerity parties that are threatening the duopoly of the mainstream parties.

Podemos: A new leftist party, Podemos (We Can) has emerged as a potential challenger to Spain’s traditional duopoly on the strength of an anti-austerity platform similar to the one that carried SYRIZA to power in Greece earlier this year. Under the leadership of Pablo Iglesias, a professor of political science, Podemos has come out of nowhere to claim the top spot in recent polls. However, the electoral fortunes of the party figure to be greatly influenced by the success or failure of SYRIZA, whose brinkmanship in negotiations with the EU is edging Greece ever closer to a potentially catastrophic default and that country’s messy exit from the euro zone. Iglesias has already adopted a less absolutist position with regard to the issues of austerity, the public debt, and nationalization of utilities, precisely the same policy areas where SYRIZA has been forced to retreat since winning office in January. Perhaps tellingly, the focus of Iglesias’ attacks on the political establishment has shifted from economic policy to corruption, a tactic that has helped to sustain Podemos’ popularity, despite the setbacks suffered by the party’s counterpart in Greece. However, a scandal involving allegations of tax fraud on the part of a high-ranking member of the party may undermine that strategy. In any case, it is unlikely that Podemos might be able to secure an outright majority of seats. Thus, even if Podemos were to head the next government, it is probably safe to assume that the compromises required to build a majority coalition (or govern without a majority) would constrain Iglesias’ ability to depart very far from a liberal policy course.

Ciudadanos: A new party founded by Alberto Rivera, a former PP member, Ciudadanos has positioned itself as a more moderate (and safer) alternative than Podemos for voters who are fed up with austerity and the corruption of the PP and the PSOE. The party is gaining ground on the leaders in the most recent polls, which suggest that possibility that the December elections could produce a roughly equal four-way split of the popular vote among the PP, the PSOE, Podemos, and Ciudadanos. Although the party is generally identified as a center-left in orientation because of its anti-austerity stance, its position on most economic issues is consistent with liberal orthodoxy. However, Ciudadanos’ focus on the issue of corruption could pose an insurmountable barrier to an alliance with the mainstream parties, especially the scandal-plagued PP.