Ruling Socialists feel the depth of economic pain in Spain at the polls

Spain's Socialist Party did not win a single province in Sunday's regional and municipal elections. Many were surprised by the depth of voter dissatisfaction.

Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, right, speaks during a declaration at the party headquarters in Madrid Sunday May 22. The ruling Socialist Party suffered a crushing defeat in the regional and municipal elections throughout Spain. Seen left to right, Finance Minister Elena Salgado, Third Deputy Premier Manuel Chaves, Public Works Minister Jose Blanco and Prime Minister Zapatero.

There was little room for interpretation in the stinging defeat of Spain’s ruling Socialist Party in Sunday’s regional and municipal elections. Whether it’s the tens of thousands who joined in the “Spanish Revolution” movement that took over plazas, or mainstream Spaniards suffering from the worst economic crisis in decades, a vast majority blame the government for the pain in Spain.

With all votes counted, the opposition center-right Popular Party came out with a record 10 percentage-point advantage over the Socialists, giving it control of most of the country’s regional and municipal governments, in what most believe is a prelude to next year’s general elections.

The Socialist Party did not win a single province, losing even in four historically pro-Socialist bastions. The defeat was more deeply felt in municipalities, where Socialists lost the governing majority they have held for years in most of Spain.

While the Socialist defeat was largely expected, many were surprised by just how deep dissatisfaction with the government runs.

“There is a 2.2-million difference in the number of votes between the two top parties. That wasn’t expected. That distance is significant, and this could mean the Popular Party could win an absolute majority in the next general elections” in 2012, says Ferran Requejo, a political science professor in Pompeu Fabra University of Barcelona.

Analysts are split over how much a nationwide wave of youth protests influenced the results.

Dubbed the Spanish Revolution, tens of thousands of frustrated young Spaniards took over plazas around the country and set up tent cities demanding “a real democracy.”

While it includes people of all ages, the grassroot movement is mostly made up of young and unemployed Spaniards. It has attracted mainstream people frustrated with an increasingly dire situation and lack of solutions.

The jobless rate in Spain is Europe’s highest, at more than 21 percent. It’s the consequence of a bursting real estate bubble that led to a painful recession and a series of draconian austerity measures. One of every two people of working age under 25 is unemployed.

“The movement increased turnout, but more to the right than to the left,” says Fermín Bouza, a sociology professor and expert in mass movements in the Madrid Autonomous University. “It amounts to a union of unemployed and stimulates democratic movement, but it doesn’t affect bipartisanship. The only real alternatives are regional parties.”

The vote count shows how the Socialists lost support to the benefit mostly of smaller and regional parties. There was 66 percent turnout, slightly more than four years ago, and Socialist shed almost 1.5 million votes, a third of which went the Popular Party, while the rest was split between smaller groupings.

Gains for left-wing nationalists as well

Among those making huge unexpected gains was Bildu, a left-wing nationalist party in the Basque country. The government and Popular Party struggled to keep the grouping from taking part in the election over suspicions it is a front for the political wing of ETA, the terrorist group fighting for Basque independence.

After an intense judicial battle, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled it could run because it had publically denounced both ETA and violence.

Bildu came in second in Basque elections, ahead of both Socialists and the Popular Party, and will govern in San Sebastian, one of the country’s most important cities.

“Bildu’s gains are amazing. It’s a warning call to efforts to outlaw them from both the Socialist and Popular Party. It’s positive for those trying to end violence in the Basque Country,” says Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, a sociology professor in Madrid Complutense University who has written extensively about ETA.

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