• Ciudadanos support surges after success in Catalan election
  • Pro-market insurgents are taking votes from PP, Socialists

A route is emerging for Albert Rivera, the rising force in Spanish politics, to become the country’s next prime minister.

The 35-year-old leader of Ciudadanos has made steep gains on the two traditional parties since September, when his group established itself as the focal point for voters wanting to keep Catalonia in Spain.

Albert Rivera
Albert Rivera
Photographer: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

In the most open election in the country’s democratic history, Rivera is now closing in on the second-placed Socialists. If he can overtake them, it may be enough to make him prime minister. The Socialists may be reluctant to form an alliance with their traditional opponents in Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party and choose instead to back Ciudadanos.

“Rivera will have a good chance of becoming prime minister if Ciudadanos is able to obtain more seats than the Socialists,” said Antonio Barroso, a London-based political analyst at Teneo Intelligence. “It will depend how far Ciudadanos is from the PP.”

Combining a mix of pro-market policies and socially liberal ideas such as legalizing prostitution, Rivera’s Ciudadanos has supplanted the anti-austerity group Podemos as the party of “change” since emerging on the national stage in December.

Rajoy, on the other hand, has seen record-low personal ratings due to a wave of corruption allegations against party officials and four years of austerity, while the Socialists are struggling to rebuild their reputation after leading the country into the financial crisis.

To be sure, Ciudadanos is still scrambling to build a national operation and that may prove a disadvantage in rural areas where loyalties to the traditional parties are often strongest and fewer votes are required to win each seat. Indeed, the U.K. Conservatives defied pollsters’ predictions to claim a shock majority in May’s general election asking voters, like Rajoy, not to put the economic recovery at risk.

But with the PP set to lose more than a third of the voters that gave it an absolute majority in 2011, the next Spanish government will almost certainly be formed by an alliance of two or more parties. That gives Rivera a chance.

Three opinion polls released in October showed Ciudadanos already overtaking the Socialists for the first time. And there are still seven weeks to go until polling day.

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