Four major contestants spanning the spectrum of mainstream Spanish politics are jostling for the office of prime minister – they are all men, three of them are 40 or under, one is running for the first time and all are keeping an eye on a far-right outsider who is hot on their tails.
The main frontrunners are: current prime minister and leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE), Pedro Sánchez; leader of the conservative Popular Party, Pablo Casado; leader of the left-wing Unidas Podemos ("United We Can," feminized, in Spanish), Pablo Iglesias and leader of the center-right Ciudadanos ("Citizens" in Spanish, Cs), Albert Rivera.
Right now in Madrid, their faces – with the exception of Iglesias – are plastered on billboards up and down streets, on bus stops and on giant posters in the metro.
But outside Spain, they are perhaps less known.
So, who are these four men vying for the office of prime minister? And who is the outsider?
Known affectionately among some of his base as "El Guapo" ("The good-looking one"), the 47-year-old is the oldest.
On June 1, 2018, he became the first Spanish prime minister to assume office by way of a no-confidence motion, which he successfully tabled against his PP predecessor Mariano Rajoy.
In another first – this time on a global level – Sánchez unveiled a female-majority cabinet, in what was interpreted as a message that his minority government would heap focus on inclusive, progressive politics.
He created a new ministry dedicated to ecological transition, which aims to push Spain to a more sustainable future, and set eyes on the controversial endeavor to transfer the remains of the late fascist dictator Gen. Franciso Franco out of his grandiose – and publicly-funded – mausoleum in the mountains north of Madrid to somewhere more discreet.
A basketball player in his youth and holder of a doctorate in Business and Economics, Sánchez presented himself this year as the only way to stop a right-wing coalition that could include the participation of Vox, the emergent far-right party.
Sánchez felt compelled to call snap elections back in February when Catalan separatist parties – on whose votes he had counted in the confidence motion against Rajoy – became unlikely bedfellows with Cs and the PP to shoot down his 2019 State Budget.
A self-defined liberal conservative, 38-year-old Casado is a relative rookie to the Spanish political mainstage, having taken over from Rajoy.
He gave a fresh face to the traditionally-stalwart party of conservative Spain.
But the opposition leader, whose party holds the largest number of seats in the lower chamber of Spanish lawmaking, the Madrid-based Congress of Deputies, has doubled down on the PP's core principles and is widely credited with pushing the party further to the right.
He inherited a party dogged by massive corruption scandals, some of them making their way through Spain's top courts.
Casado was no stranger to scandals, either. Scrutinizing his resumé this time last year, left-leaning online newspaper El Diario discovered that his post-graduate title from Havard University was actually obtained at a four-day voluntary course in Madrid.
To his followers, he presents himself as a sensible, clean-cut, option who will defend Spanish unity and the national flag against Catalan separatism, and protect controversial cultural heritage such as bull-fighting and hunting. As for social programs, he would oppose liberal abortion laws, euthanasia and higher taxes.
Casado has launched several acrimonious verbal tirades against the PM, labeling him a "coup-plotter," "a liar," "a criminal" and accusing him of "high treason" for his perceived soft approach to the Catalan independence issue.
The leader of the grassroots, direct-democracy Podemos sets himself apart from the rest not only with a radical program centered on anti-corruption and anti-austerity policies but also with simple things such as his appearance.
A political science professor by trade, 40-year-old Iglesias tends to eschew the traditional suit-and-tie look preferred by his main opponents and opts instead for a casual combination of loose button-ups and khaki pants. His long-hair tied back in a ponytail has become an iconic feature of his style.
He rose to the fore of Spanish politics in 2014, riding a wave of national discontent as Spain was still dazed by a massive economic crisis and spiraling youth unemployment.
The momentum was such that Podemos looked poised to usurp PSOE as the dominant left-wing party but, nowadays, pollsters suggest the party, rocked by internal division, could fall behind Cs to become the country's fourth political power only just ahead of Vox.
Father of twins with his partner and fellow Podemos MP Irene Montero, he only returned to the frontline of Spanish politics at the end of March, deciding he did not want to cut short his three-month paternity leave to enter the fray of the snap elections early.
One of his key distinctions from the other three candidates is his support for dialogue with Catalan separatists as a way to defuse the crisis.
The Barcelona-born 39-year-old looks to solidify his status as a leading politician in the Apr. 28 elections.
Often smartly-dressed, he presents himself as a modern, worldly alternative to the more traditional PP but his program of a liberal approach to sectors like the economy and social issues cohabits awkwardly with a fiercely anti-Catalan separatist attitude with nationalist overtones.
Unlike Casado, Rivera recently came out in favor of a euthanasia law.
In fact, the Cs raison d'etre since its inception in 2006 has been to oppose emerging separatism in the prosperous northeastern Spanish region.
The son of an Andalusian mother and a Catalan father, Rivera aims to represent those in Catalonia who reject the idea of independence from the rest of Spain.
Since the 2017 Catalan crisis, Rivera, like Casado, has positioned himself as a defender of the Spanish nation against what they refer to as forces trying to dismantle it.
Cs burst into the national Parliament in the 2015 election, eroding the PP's vote.
His party has nonetheless cooperated on different levels with both the PP and PSOE.
The Bilbao-born 44-year-old spent much of his formative political years in the ranks of the PP but he abandoned the formation in 2013, taking issue with the party’s corruption scandals and the leadership’s stance on Basque and Catalan nationalism.
In early 2014 he unveiled his new party, Vox which attracted a clutch of disgruntled former PP members.
Restricted to the fringes for years, Vox got a toe-hold in mainstream politics in Dec. 2018, when it took 12 seats in the regional elections for Andalusia’s parliament, later facilitating a PP-Cs coalition that brought an end to four decades of PSOE rule.
Vox would like to deport 2illegal immigrants” and proposes that regional autonomy in Spain be scrapped in favor of central rule, something that would require the Constitution to be re-written.
Its popularity rose in the wake of the Catalan crisis and it is poised to become the first far-right party to enter the chamber since Spain's transition to democracy after Franco's death (1975).
Other key parties include Catalan separatists and Basque nationalists, which could be crucial for Sánchez should he be able to form a minority or coalition government.
Catalan separatists have predicated their support, however, on being granted a legal independence referendum.
PSOE is set to win the elections, according to pollsters, but will fall short of an absolute majority, meaning coalition negotiations are highly likely.EFE-EPA