10 unusual candidates in Spain’s elections

From bullfighters to sports stars, and generals to an astronaut, meet the hopeful new faces of Spanish politics.


4/19/19, 3:48 PM CET

Updated 4/24/19, 5:56 AM CET

POLITICO photo illustration/Source images via EPA

MADRID — When you've got election sickness, a few fresh faces can help you stand out from the crowd.

Spain has a quadruple whammy of elections in the coming weeks, with a general election on April 28 and then local, regional and European ballots on May 26. Traditionally, public servants — most of them lawyers — have dominated the election lists and while there will be plenty of those this time around, there are a host of other candidates with diverse backgrounds to choose from.

While the far-left Podemos shook things up in 2015 with a young crop of social activists making the leap into professional politics, and last year Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez signed up high-profile non-politicians for his new Socialist Cabinet, this time it's the three parties on the right — the conservative Popular Party, the liberal Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox — which have been more active at recruiting.

Signing up new blood hasn’t been easy, according to people involved in election planning from across the spectrum. Politicians in Spain earn modest wages compared with their European peers; they are often very unpopular; and they are subject to intense public scrutiny.

Here are 10 groups of candidates that could rock Spanish politics:

1. Bullfighters

The conservative Popular Party has added two bullfighters and the widow of a bullfighter who was killed in action to its electoral lists in three different provinces. None is likely to make it to Congress because they are too far down the list and Spain uses a (mostly) proportional representation system. But it's a clear attempt by Popular Party leader Pablo Casado to keep the far-right Vox party out of traditional PP strongholds in rural areas — Vox has made the defense of folk traditions a cornerstone of its campaign and has recruited a bullfighter of its own. The conservatives’ electoral program also commits to defending bullfighting.

Spanish bullfighter Miguel Abellán has joined the Popular Party ranks | Luis Tejido/EFE via EPA

2. A grieving father

One conservative newcomer who will almost certainly make it to Congress is Juan José Cortés, the father of a 5-year-old girl who was murdered in 2008. Cortés has been campaigning for stricter prison sentences since then. The Spanish penal code only allows for life imprisonment for what are deemed exceptionally grave crimes, but Casado has adopted a tougher tone on crime in line with his right-wing shift and promised to extend the list of offenses for which life imprisonment can be applied.

3. Outspoken journalist (and marquess)

Casado recruited Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo — a historian and journalist heavily involved in fighting the independence movement in Catalonia — as his head candidate in Barcelona for the national election. Álvarez de Toledo was already a PP member but had been highly critical of former PM Mariano Rajoy, and her push is a way for the conservatives to burnish their anti-separatist credentials in the face of the challenge from Ciudadanos and Vox. Álvarez de Toledo made the news earlier this month when separatists attempted to boycott one of her speeches at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She also made a controversial statement on sexual consent in a TV debate.

4. Francoist generals

Vox has found a goldmine in the army. The far-right has recruited four retired generals for its electoral lists in the general election. Two of them — Alberto Asarta and Agustín Rosety — signed a manifesto defending the legacy of dictator Francisco Franco when the Socialist government moved to unearth his remains from the Valley of the Fallen. Vox's leader Santiago Abascal has campaigned on taking a firm hand against Catalan separatists and immigration, a narrative that the generals should help him develop. Another Vox signee backfired when the self-proclaimed historian Fernando Paz was forced to resign after Jewish groups complained about statements he made denying the Holocaust.

The tomb of dictator Francisco Franco in the Valley of the Fallen| Philippe Desmazes/AFP via Getty Images

5. Business leader and TV economist

Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera has enlisted the former global executive vice president of Coca-Cola, Marcos de Quinto, for the national election. The liberal party has shifted from the center to compete against the Popular Party for right-wing voters, and the signing of De Quintos is a clear attempt to project an image of solid management while its conservative rival has added a number of younger faces. They include economist, blogger and investor Daniel Lacalle, the PP's new economics guru. Ciudadanos says Lacalle's background as a commentator on TV shows a lack of seriousness.

6. Defectors

Ciudadanos has poached a number of Popular Party and Socialist cadres, including former Socialist lawmaker Soraya Rodríguez, who will be on the list of the liberal party for the European election. Rodríguez had been critical of PM Sánchez’s softer policy toward Catalan independence parties, which should help Rivera reinforce his message that the Socialist government has surrendered to the separatists. That message will be boosted by Edmundo Bal, an attorney who led the state’s criminal case against Catalan leaders — until the government dropped him. Defections don't always work, however. Former PP lawmaker Silvia Clemente came first in an internal Ciudadanos race in the Castilla y Leon region for the regional election but the ballot was rigged, derailing her candidacy.

7. Sports stars

Prime Minister Sánchez has been more modest in his ambitions than other parties, but one signee made the news: Pepu Hernández, the coach who led the national basketball team to the world championship in 2006, will be the Socialist candidate for mayor of Madrid. Hernández follows in the footsteps of Javier Imbroda — another former national basketball coach — who ran for Ciudadanos in the election in Andalusia and is now the region's sports minister. Less lucky was Casado’s bet on Olympic high-jump gold medalist Ruth Beitia. After a series of gaffes, controversial statements and opposition from PP members, she resigned two weeks after being appointed the party’s regional candidate in Cantabria.

8. Ex-French PM

Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls will be an independent candidate for mayor of Barcelona, with the backing of Ciudadanos. He will face incumbent Ada Colau — a former anti-eviction activist backed by Podemos — and leading secessionist candidate Ernest Maragall in a key political fight that’s been dubbed "the Battle of Barcelona." Speaking of former prime ministers, Adolfo Suárez, son of the former PM of the same name (who led the country during the democratic transition), will run on the PP’s list in the national election. He made a controversial start, saying in a radio interview that abortion is "Neanderthal" and claiming that New York had brought in a law allowing abortion after birth — a bizarre claim that he later retracted.

Former French prime minister Manuel Valls during his campaign in Barcelona | Andreu Dalmau/EFE via EPA

9. Astronaut

Pedro Duque, who traveled to the International Space Station in 2003, became one of the most celebrated members of the Socialist Cabinet when Sánchez seized power last summer and appointed him science minister. Duque topped lists of most popular members of the government before reports that he created a company to manage his real estate interests, with the alleged aim of saving tax. Nothing illegal was found, but his inexperience was seized upon by rivals. Duque — along with most of the ministers that Sánchez recruited for his government — will be a leading Socialist candidate in the general election.


10. Jailed Catalan politicians

Catalan pro-independence parties have put their jailed leaders — and those who fled the country to avoid prosecution — in the top positions on their electoral lists. That created legal problems in the past when the same politicians were elected to the Catalan regional parliament in a ballot in December 2017. Former regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras, who faces a jail sentence of 25 years and has been behind bars for almost a year and a half,  is on the list of the Catalan Republican Left for the general election and for the European Parliament. The electoral board has allowed press conferences to be given from jail (Junqueras gave such a statement on Friday) but the Supreme Court said jailed leaders on election lists cannot leave prison to campaign. Former regional President Carles Puigdemont, currently living in Belgium, will be on the list for the Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) platform in the European ballot.