MADRID – Spain's ruling Socialists are bracing for stinging losses in regional and municipal voting this weekend as people vent anger over staggering unemployment and bleak economic prospects, launching a drumroll toward likely defeat in general elections next year.
Butting noisily into the campaign is a growing protest movement by Spaniards fed up with both main parties and what they call a stagnant political system that favors economic interests over everyday people facing a grim future.
Polls indicate Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's party could on Sunday suffer the humiliation of losing historic Socialist strongholds such as the town halls of Seville and Barcelona and the regional government in Castilla-La Mancha, the Spanish heartland that was the setting for Don Quixote tilting at windmills.
Elections like these are supposed to be about building new schools and hospitals and other projects. But deep economic woes — 21.3 percent unemployment, forecasts for limp economic growth and mountains of debt — have given the voting a higher-altitude twist.
"You'd have to be blind not to see it. People are planning to vote from a national perspective," said Fernando Gonzalez, 58, who has been unemployed for two years.
Zapatero, who has said he won't seek a third term next year, has undertaken austerity measures and other reforms which for now seem to have warded off investor fears that Spain will join Greece, Ireland and now Portugal in requesting an international bailout.
But that's no great consolation for Spaniards enduring hard times, particularly young people facing over 40 percent unemployment and armies of Spaniards who do work do but earn €1,000 ($1,400) or less per month.
Antonio Fernandez, leaving a Madrid lottery ticket office after ponying up a few euros to test his luck, said he has voted Socialist in the past but sees the party as finished now that people are so desperate over the economy and jobs.
"I work in Spain's largest sector: the unemployed," said Fernandez, 52, who has been jobless for two years.
There's also an acute sense that Spaniards are not particularly pleased with the opposition conservatives, either, and feel politicians in general only care about looking out for themselves and fighting each other.
Several corruption cases have tainted both of Spain's two main parties in recent years. And between them, they also control the political system to such an extent they even decide together which judges sit on the country's highest court.
A survey released in April by government-backed pollster CIS said that when some 2,500 Spaniards were asked about their country's biggest problems, "the political class and political parties" came in third, after unemployment and the economy in general.
With help from social media like Twitter, protests by Spaniards young and not so young are popping up around the country, forcing politicians to take notice and leaving them somewhat at a loss as to how to respond. Some say they understand the protesters' frustration but urge them not to abandon the political system and turn out to vote Sunday.
It all started when tens of thousands marched in Madrid and dozens of other cities last weekend to vent disgust with the political system and what they see as kid-glove government treatment of the troubled financial sector. For the rest of the week thousands have been gathering in the city's main plaza each evening, the Puerta del Sol, with some spending the night and pledging to stay until election day, even though their rallies have now officially been prohibited on grounds organizers did not seek permission to stage them.
There have also been smaller anti-establishment protests this week in Barcelona, Bilbao, Valencia, Seville and other Spanish cities.
At stake in Sunday's elections are 13 of Spain's 17 semiautonomous regional governments and more than 8,000 town halls nationwide.
Arantza de Areilza, a political scientist at IESE Business School in Madrid, said this is not a standard local and regional election. For one, politicians know they have no money to promise voters anything. And the ballot's seen as a sharply focused test of Zapatero's record.
"They are a plebiscite against the Socialist government because of the backdrop of economic crisis," de Areilza said.
Jorge Sainz contributed to this report.