BILBAO, Spain – Voters in Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's northwestern home region of Galicia have given their support to his handling of the economy, but those in the turbulent Basque region handed a major victory to nationalist and separatist parties at the ballots Sunday.
Rajoy's Popular Party increased its absolute majority in Galicia, where austerity measures were introduced even before he took power as prime minister last year, with 41 seats in a legislature of 75.
In the Basque region, the Basque Nationalist Party — or PNV by its Spanish initials — took 27 seats while the separatist Bildu party claimed 21, giving pro-independence candidates their second-largest majority in 34 years of democracy.
The likely president of the Basque region will be PNV leader Inigo Urkullu, who called for calm in his victory speech and highlighted the need to restore his industrious and well-off region's economy.
"Resolving the financial crisis is a priority and the situation demands that we keep our feet firmly on the ground," Urkullu said.
A deepening financial crisis and how best to address the nation's separatist tensions were the main issues in the elections.
Spain is in its second recession in three years and has near 25 percent unemployment. Since being voted to office in general elections in November, Rajoy has been forced to hike taxes, cut spending and introduce stinging labor reforms in a bid to persuade investors and international authorities that Spain can manage its finances without the need for a full-blown bailout.
However, Spain's public finances have been overwhelmed by the cost of rescuing some of its banks and regional governments, many of which have suffered heavy losses in the property sector crash of 2008.
Some observers believe Rajoy will seek a bailout soon, now that the elections are over.
The government's austerity measures have led to protests across the country, some of which have ended in clashes between demonstrators and police. The financial crisis has also brought to the fore calls from some of Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions for greater independence.
Spain has separatist groups in Galicia, the Basque region and prosperous and influential Catalonia.
Basque voters on Sunday ousted Socialist leader Patxi Lopez — who had ruled thanks to a pact with the PP — from the 75-seat regional legislature.
"This is not the result we Socialists expected in these elections, but the citizens of the Basque country have spoken," said Lopez.
The Basque region has been wracked by decades of separatist violence.
"We hope this election succeeds in bringing us peace, so we can reach an understanding between ourselves and let us know how to make concessions," said Sister Teresa Ormazabal, a nun in the Basque region's largest city, Bilbao.
Lopez was jostled by demonstrators carrying placards backing violent Basque separatist group ETA as he voted early Sunday.
ETA, which stands for Basque Homeland and Freedom, is classified as a terrorist group by the European Union, the U.S. and Spain.
The group is blamed for the killings of more than 825 people in a violent campaign of bombings and shootings for an independent Basque state straddling the border with France.
ETA was decimated by arrests over recent years and declining grass roots support among Basque nationalists who stomached its activities in exchange for working toward the goal of independence.
It announced a definitive cease-fire last year, but Spain insists it must lay down its arms and dissolve.
Lopez said these were the first elections in the Basque region where people can vote "in freedom from fear."
Alberto Nunez Feijoo, who is the re-elected president of Galicia's regional government and the head of PP there, was also jostled by a group of protesters as he went in to cast his ballot.
Heckle reported from Madrid. Associated Press writer Lalo Villar in Vigo contributed to this report.