MADRID Spaniards voted on Sunday in local and regional polls expected to deal heavy losses to the ruling Socialists after tens of thousands of demonstrators packed city squares to protest against austerity measures.
The protesters, who took to the streets a week ago, have urged voters to reject the Socialists and the centre-right Popular Party (PP), the two main political options in Spain.
On Saturday night their numbers reached a peak, with 30,000 people in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid alone.
But the PP is expected to make major gains in the voting for 8,116 city councils and 13 out of 17 regional governments.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, applauded abroad for his fiscal discipline during the euro zone crisis, has become unpopular at home as the economy stagnates.
Almost half of 18-25 year-old Spaniards are out of work, more than double the European Union average.
"I've voted for the PP because the Socialists are doing a very bad job... It's true there's been a worldwide crisis ,but Zapatero didn't react to it on time," said Jesus Lopez, a retired man voting in the Arguelles neighborhood of Madrid.
Spaniards demonstrated in the past week around the country against tough measures that have kept a fiscal crisis at bay but aggravated the highest jobless rate in the European Union.
A REBUKE FOR ZAPATERO
Polls show the Socialists could lose strategic regions such as Castilla-La Mancha, where they have controlled the regional legislature for decades, and the city of Sevilla, where they have been in power for 12 years.
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.
Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy, who says Zapatero's mishandling of the economy has triggered the protests, called on Spaniards to vote on Sunday:
"To decide the issues that affect you the most important thing you have is your vote. That is where you support someone or withdraw your support."
After the euro zone debt crisis forced Greece, and later Ireland and Portugal, to take bailouts, 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 on Sunday.
"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.
PROTESTS DESPITE BAN
On Sunday thousands of protesters and onlookers occupied and cleaned up Madrid's central plaza, Puerta del Sol, after an overnight demonstration that drew an estimated 30,000 people, the biggest crowd in a week of protests. [ID:nLDE74L0BL]
Political rallies are forbidden in Spain on election days and the preceding 24 hours but the government chose not to break up the demonstrations, fearing violence after a week of peaceful protest.
Until now Spaniards had been remarkably patient with the economic crisis, as joblessness has been cushioned by traditionally strong family ties and casual jobs. But the patience seemed to run out this week.
"We need a change and I'm not surprised people have risen up, albeit belatedly," said one of the protesters, 38-year-old Robert, who works for an advertising production company.
Robert had brought along his three-month-old daughter "so she can start learning young", he said.
(Additional reporting by Teresa Larraz and Rodrigo de Miguel; editing by Philippa Fletcher)