Spaniards vote in local elections


Spaniards began voting today in local and regional polls expected to result in heavy losses to the ruling Socialists, who are blamed for widespread unemployment that has off a wave of pre-election protests.

Tens of thousands of Spaniards demonstrated in the past week in city squares around the country against austerity measures that have kept a fiscal crisis at bay but aggravated the highest jobless rate in the EU.

The protesters have called on Spaniards to reject the Socialists and the centre-right Popular Party, the main two political options in Spain.

The protests are not expected to shift the outcome of the voting for 8,116 city councils and 13 out of 17 regional governments, where the centre-right Popular Party is expected to make major gains.

Polls show the Socialists could lose strongholds such as the Castilla-La Mancha region, where they have controlled the regional legislature for decades, and the city of Sevilla, where they have been in power for 12 years.

If forecasts hold true, the outcome will be a rebuke for prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, applauded abroad for his fiscal discipline during the euro zone crisis but unpopular at home as the economy stagnates.

The Socialists, in power since 2004, are also looking likely to lose the next general election, which is scheduled for March 2012, but could come earlier if big losses on Sunday spark a leadership crisis within the party.

After the euro zone debt crisis forced Greece, and later Ireland and Portugal, to take bailouts, Mr Zapatero implemented round of measures to tackle a huge public deficit and persuade financial markets that it has the budget under control.

He is expected to maintain unpopular economic policies whatever the outcome today.

"Unless the government wants to run the risk of another episode of financial distress and the debt spreads sky rocketing again, it will have to implement another austerity package before the next elections," Fernando Fernandez, an analyst at Madrid's IE business school, said.