Spain's traditional two-party system faces a major challenge from two new parties. The centrist Ciudadanos and leftist Podemos, as well as "citizens platforms" polled well ahead of local and regional elections.
Surveys just before polling started on Sunday indicated that backing for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative People's Party (PP) and the left Socialist combined would slump to less than half - compared to 84 percent in 2008 and 73 percent in 2011.
Ciudadanos, led by Catalonian constitutional law graduate Albert Rivera, and Podemos, headed by pony-tailed professor Pablo Iglesias, were expected to perform well in the elections with the old parties blamed for high unemployment, corruption and spending cuts.
Both of the newer parties stem from Spain's Indignado protests of 2011 that inspired the worldwide Occupy movement.
Moving into the mayors' offices
In the mayoral races for Madrid and Barcelona, the surveys showed the new parties' candidates level or even ahead of mainstream stalwarts.
The surveys also suggested that Podemos could enter regional coalitions in some northern Spanish regions. Last year, Podemos won 1.2 million votes in the European parliamentary elections by promising to defend the poor.
Rivera's Ciudadanos wants to maintain social welfare but encouraging technically progressive companies and lure back well-educated Spanish émigrés.
Spain's official unemployment rate remains high at 23 percent and anti-austerity campaigners say gradual economic recovery has not yet reached the country's poorest people.
End to two-party system
Jose Pablo Ferrandiz of the major pollster Metroscopia said Sunday's outcome could signal the end for Spain's two-party system that emerged after fall of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s.
"There is no doubt that a majority of Spaniards want change," Ferrandiz said, adding that local citizens' coalitions were also likely to emerge.
"That is truly something new in Spain. We are not used to coalition governments," he added.
Madrid University political scientist Pablo Simon said citizen platforms were running in many provincial towns in Sunday's elections.
"They could decide the result in many cases - if not by winning the city hall then at least by coming second," Simon said.
Institutional reform 'overdue'
A new multi-party political landscape could lead to long-overdue reforms of Spain's court system and other state institutions, he added.
"We have gone for practically 30 years without altering our institutional system. That is what will be on the agenda from this year onwards," Simon said.
Spain's national general election is due to be called by the end of 2015.
ipj/sms (AP, AFP, Reuters)