MADRID – Spain's ruling Socialists braced for stinging losses in regional and municipal elections Sunday as unprecedented street protests over high unemployment and politicians seen as inept and corrupt refused to fade away.
The elections are a key test of how much the center-left party's support has crumbled due to its handling of Spain's real estate collapse and its subsequent economic and debt crisis, and are seen as a preview for general elections next year.
The opposition conservative Popular Party was forecast to be the big winner Sunday, and probably next year.
Protest camps of mainly young people sprang up in cities around the country a week ago and swelled to tens of thousands of demonstrators who on Saturday defied a government ban on gatherings the day before an election. The growing protest movement reflects the strong disillusionment felt by Spaniards toward a political system they say favors economic interests and political fat cats over ordinary people.
"My hope is that our leaders will react responsibly to the protests we've been seeing and learn how to spend with prudence on the things our society needs," said civil servant Inmaculada Alfaro, 54.
More than 34 million people were eligible to vote for seats in 13 of Spain's 17 semiautonomous regional governments and for more than 8,000 city halls nationwide.
"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.
Voter turnout as 6 p.m. stood at 49.8 percent in the municipal elections, roughly similar to elections in 2007, the electoral commission said.
Polls indicate Zapatero's party could suffer the humiliation of losing historic Socialist strongholds.
The financial crisis has forced deep job cuts and left Spain burdened with 21.3 percent unemployment — the highest rate in the 17-nation eurozone. The jobless rate among the young stands at over 40 percent and a total of 4.9 million people are out of work in Spain, the highest number since 1997.
A large proportion of those who still have jobs earn just euro1,000 ($1,400) or less per month.
And there is little hope on the horizon for the rest of the year. The Spanish government is forecasting limp growth of just 1.3 percent for 2011, but even the Bank of Spain says that prediction is optimistic.
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.
The government did not disperse the demonstrators, including the largest group camped out in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square opposite city hall. Protesters on Sunday voted to stay in that square until at least May 29.
Despite the likely losses for the Socialists, Spaniards are also clearly disillusioned with politicians in general.
"Politicians like the ones here in Madrid that go around spending money on official cars only seem to care about their own careers," said salesman Joaquin Ribes, 28.
Madrid has been ruled by the Popular Party since 1995.