MADRID – In Catalonia's elections, many see the beginning of the end of the Socialists' grip on power in Spain.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's party is expected to suffer a big loss in the rich northeastern region's weekend ballot — punishment for the country's economic woes that could snowball into a string of setbacks culminating in defeat in national elections in 2012.
Catalonia has long sought an independent voice, but is here seen as a speaking for a wave of national anger over Zapatero's handling of a financial crisis that some fear will require Spain to seek a painful and humiliating bailout.
Defeat for the Catalan Socialists would be a big blow for Zapatero as his party prepares to head into nationwide municipal elections and 13 regional government ballots in May.
"The defeat of the Socialists is all but taken for granted. No one doubts it," said Professor Javier del Rey Morato of Madrid's Complutense University. "And it is likely to have repercussions on a national level, and may even be a foretaste of Zapatero's defeat in the general elections of 2012."
Catalonia, whose capital is Barcelona, is one of most powerful of Spain's 17 semiautonomous regions and its ruling parties have always played pivotal roles in the national parliament in Madrid. With some 7 million inhabitants, it is responsible for a fifth of the country's production.
But lately there appears to be a pall of gloom over this normally ebullient and dynamic Mediterranean coastal region.
"There's a widespread sense of disaffection with politicians. People here are very upset," said Josefina Elias, director of the Barcelona-based Institute Opina polling agency.
With Spanish unemployment at a euro-zone high of 20 percent, Zapatero's party has plunged in approval ratings. In Catalonia, the economic crisis is biting hard with unemployment at 17.4 percent. It is the region that has seen the most jobs lost during the crisis.
Del Rey Morato said the fact that Zapatero denied for years that a crisis even existed and then made a major U-turn by introducing pro-business labor reforms and austerity measures has left people disconcerted.
"No one knows what Zapatero stands for anymore, he is naked, in absolute crisis and this affects the Socialist party everywhere," he said.
Observers say many voters are equally displeased with what they view as the incompetence of the local Socialist-led government. Under its watch, Catalonia has suffered some of its most embarrassing moments — with colossal problems in its transport system and electricity and water supplies cropping up incessantly.
Psychologically, the region also suffered a major blow this summer when Spain's Constitutional Court trimmed a new charter giving the region more self-rule, most importantly rejecting its bid to refer to itself as a nation.
The charter had been promised by Zapatero and protests against the ruling drew a million people on to the streets in Barcelona. An Opina poll said 42 percent of Catalans support independence, up 12 percentage points up from 2003.
In another shift, the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia, which has ruled for two terms with the Socialists and the Catalan Green Initiative, is expected to lose ground in favor of a long-dominant conservative party that also supports Catalan independence.
Up for grabs in Sunday's ballot are 135 seats in the regional parliament where the Socialists, now headed by regional government President Jose Montilla, have governed for the past seven years. Opinion polls show voters swaying toward the conservative nationalist Convergence and Union coalition, known as CiU.
A survey by the Center for Sociological Research said the Catalan Socialists could dip from their current 37 seats to 33 while Artur Mas' CiU may jump from 48 to 59 — nine short of a majority and opening the door to several coalition scenarios.
The campaign has been marked by controversy over election commercials.
The right-wing Popular Party — second-ranked in Spain but running fourth in Catalonia — caused most stir with a cartoon video game on its website in which players win points by having party regional leader Alicia Sanchez Camacho, riding a seagull, shoot down icons depicting illegal immigrants and Catalan nationalists.
The video triggered allegations of xenophobia and the party withdrew it within hours claiming the producers had misunderstood instructions.
Montilla's Socialists also came in for criticism over a video showing a young woman voting for the party and simulating an orgasm as she inserts her ballot in the voting box.
The CiU, meanwhile, drew fire for its video showing a thief dressed in the colors of Spain stealing wallets from Catalans.