THE ruling Socialist Party braced itself for stinging losses in regional and municipal elections amid unprecedented street protests that have caught the imagination of the nation.
The elections are a key test of how much the party’s support has crumbled due to soaring unemployment and its handling of the financial crisis, and are seen as a prelude to general elections next year.
More than 34 million people were eligible to vote, while in the background a growing protest movement has illustrated the strong disillusionment felt by Spaniards toward both main parties and what they call a political system that favours economic interests over citizens.
“I call for, encourage and appeal for a responsible, big turnout in these May 22 regional and municipal elections in all of Spain,” Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said as he emerged with his wife from casting his ballot.
Polls indicate Zapatero’s party could suffer the humiliation of losing historic Socialist strongholds.
The financial crisis has forced deep cuts and left Spain burdened with 21.3% unemployment, the highest of any nation using the euro as its currency. The jobless rate among the young stands at 40% and 4.9m are out of work in Spain, the highest number since 1997.
A large proportion of those in work earn just €1,000 or less per month.
Spain is forecasting limp growth of just 1.3% for itself in 2011, but even the Bank of Spain has rated that prediction as optimistic.
“My hope is that our leaders will react responsibly to the protests we’ve been seeing and learn how to spend with prudence in the things our society needs,” said civil servant Inmaculada Alfaro, 54.
Protest camps set up mainly by young people began to spring up in cities around the country a week ago and grew to include tens of thousands of demonstrators who defied a ban on gatherings on the day before an election, known as a Day of Reflection.
The government did not act to disperse the demonstrators, the largest group of which camped out in Madrid’s central Puerta del Sol square, opposite city hall.
Many protesters said they had been inspired by pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that had toppled long-standing and corrupt dictators.
Despite the likely losses for the Socialists, throughout the country there is also a clear sense that Spaniards are disillusioned with the opposition conservative Popular Party.
Madrid has been ruled by the Popular Party since 1995.
Politicians are vying for seats in 13 of Spain’s 17 semiautonomous regional governments and more than 8,000 town and city halls nationwide.
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