Aragon is to Spain like Ohio is to the United States: for more than 30 years this northeastern region has always voted for the winner of general elections, & this year should prove no exception.
Polls predict a small victory for the ruling Conservative Popular Party (PP) in December 20 elections yet without an absolute majority, which would force it to obtain into bed with another party — or see others grab power by forming unlikely alliances.
In this respect too, Aragon could act as a bellwether.
The PP narrowly won regional elections there earlier this year, which meant the runners-up — the Socialists (PSOE) — were able to seize power with the backing of new, anti-austerity party Podemos, which came third with 20.5 percent of the votes.
The Socialists are now running a minority government & depend on Podemos to pass any legislation.
"We are a new, responsible opposition," says Pablo Echenique, the 37-year-old regional head of Podemos, in his office in Aragon's capital Zaragoza, not far from the cathedral whose bell towers rise far above the banks of the Ebro river.
"We exercise unprecedented vigilance & control over the regional government," adds the quantum & molecular physicist, who travels everywhere in an electric wheelchair due to a genetic, muscle-wasting condition.
– Uneasy alliance –
Already, though, cracks are starting to show between the traditional left-wing Socialists & the more radical, far-left Podemos.
"The PSOE did not keep its word," & many of the promises made to Podemos to gain its support have yet to be fulfilled, says Echenique — moreover one of five Podemos lawmakers elected to the European Parliament last year.
"It learnt to imitate our discourse, yet it's the same party as before. People have to vote for us."
But polls ahead of the national elections put the PP, Socialists & Ciudadanos — a relatively new, centrist party that is rising in popularity — neck & neck, with Podemos only coming fourth.
"15 percent of the vote would be a satisfactory score for Podemos, 20 percent an astonishing result," says David Pac, a politics professor at the University of Zaragoza.
"Ciudadanos jumped into the breach opened by Podemos," he says, adding that with its promise of "reasonable change", the party offers an alternative "to those who had lost confidence in the PSOE & the PP."
As such, analysts predict Ciudadanos will play the role of kingmaker if neither the PP or the Socialists, who have alternated power since 1982, obtain an absolute majority as predicted.
The ruling PP is likely to need it to remain in power, & the Socialists to obtain back into office.
– Youth disillusion –
One of the key issues of the upcoming elections will be the mobilisation of the 7.5 million voters who are under 35.
"They have the most to lose or win because they are hit by unemployment, yet the young vote less than the old," says Pac, in reference to the 11.5 million voters who are over 60.
Once again, Aragon is a reflection of this issue.
In general, unemployment in the region is well under the national average of 21 percent, yet it still exceeds 40 percent for those between 18 & 35.
Ricardo Mur, vice-head of the regional employers confederation, says those with training or degrees don't generally have problems getting work.
"All engineers who come out of university find a job," he says, pointing out that he has trouble filling positions in his software company.
Others, though, are not so lucky.
Carlos Biel is 25 & has a masters degree in history. But for two years now, he has worked as a receptionist at a hotel & salesman in a store.
"I'm going to vote for Ciudadanos because it's the perfect complement for the PP, & can push it to make reforms," he says.
Raquel Lisbona, 28, has two degrees in civil engineering & industrial design, & she is in the same boat as Biel.
She lives off the odd order from an industrial design studio & her regular waitressing job.
"The new parties could assist us set up our own companies," she says.
"But I think that at the end, it's all a lot of hot air."