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Voting begins

May 22, 2011

Spaniards went to the polls in elections which are likely to deal a blow to the Socialist government after days of massive protests against high unemployment and the stagnant economy.

Protesters in Barcelona
Local elections have been overshadowed by protestsImage: dapd

Spaniards went to the polls on Sunday, May 22, for local elections expected to deal a heavy blow to the ruling Socialists. Public dissatisfaction among young people with their dire employment prospects manifested itself in days of mass-protests in the run up to the ballots.

Thousands of youngsters chose not to honor the traditional "day of reflection" in Spain before an election when all public campaigning is supposed to cease. The electoral commission ruled that this ban included public protests without a specific partisan agenda, but the mainly young demonstrators, dubbed "los indignados," (the indignant) decided to defy the decree, vowing that they were "here to stay."

Tens of thousands of people gathered in city centers across the county on Saturday for the seventh day of nationwide protests against soaring unemployment. One of the largest groups camped out in a ramshackle protest village in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol Square.

"We intend to continue, because this is not about Sunday's elections," said Carmen Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the organizers in Madrid. "It's about social cutbacks."

Protests also continued in other Spanish cities including Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla and Bilbao.

Day of reflection?

Thousands fill the Puerto del Sol Square
The Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid was the epicenter of the protestsImage: AP

Spain's electoral commission had announced the 48-hour ban on Thursday, asserting that protests planned for Saturday and Sunday were illegal. The commission proclaimed that they "go beyond the constitutionally guaranteed right to demonstrate."

Saturday was declared "a day of reflection," meaning political activity was forbidden. Yet fearing a backlash on the streets - and possibly at the polling stations - the government elected not to strictly enforce the ban and the protests remained peaceful.

When the ban came into force at midnight, some 25,000 protesters in Madrid's Puerta del Sol Square began to whistle and cheer, shouting "now we are all illegal."

But in spite of the apparent festivities, the predominately young crowd clearly expressed their frustrations.

Spanish PM sympathetic

Spain's ruling Socialist Party is facing a major setback this Sunday, with a particular poor showing expected. Polls suggest that voters will punish the party for their handling of the recession and Spain's runaway joblessness rate.

Pro-independence Basque supporters celebrate the Bildu party's admittance into the election
Supporters of the new Basque Bildu party won their separate protestImage: dapd

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero voiced sympathy for the protesters on Friday, however, saying they were reacting to unemployment and the recession "in a peaceful manner."

The economic downturn pushed Spain's unemployment rate to 21.19 percent in the first quarter of this year, the highest figure in the industrialized world. In February, unemployment for under-25s stood at 44.6 percent.

Some polls suggest that the Socialists might fall short of an absolute majority in all 13 of the semi-autonomous regions at stake. Key cities and traditional strongholds like Barcelona, Seville and the central region of Castilla-La-Mancha might all slip from the grasp of Zapatero's under-fire party.

Incumbents set to suffer

34 million people are eligible to vote, choosing over 8,000 mayors, almost 70,000 town councilors, and 824 members of regional parliaments.

There was also a considerable focus on the northern, semi-autonomous Basque region in the run up to the vote. A new political party representing Basque separatists, Bildu, which was initially banned, won a Constitutional Court appeal allowing it to participate. It is expected to score quite well, perhaps becoming the third power in the Basque Country behind the Basque Nationalist Party and the Socialists.

The government had wanted to exclude Bildu from the ballot, arguing that the party was too closely tied to the Basque terror group ETA.

Author: Mark Hallam (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

Editor: Toma Tasovac