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Protesters Piggyback on Spanish Regional Elections

Protesters discouraged by Spain's whopping unemployment are not waiting for Sunday's election to voice disapproval of the situation.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 5/18/2011, 6:56 PM / Last Update: 5/18/2011, 9:22 PM

Spain's regional elections are scheduled for Sunday, but interest in the elections may be preempted by the growing demonstrations in the major Spanish cities that seek to mimic the Middle Eastern protests. Demonstrators number in the thousands if not tens of thousands, and are converging on major city squares to protest Spain's 21% unemployment rate. Youth unemployment is estimated at around 40%.  So far the demonstrations have remained goodnatured.

According to the election polls, the center-right Partido Popular (PP) will handily defeat the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) that may be left without control of any major Spanish city. The Partido Popular will capitalize on the economic crisis,particularly since it can remind voters that in the March 2008 elections it had sounded warnings about the economy that were dismissed as alarmism by the Socialists.

PP leader Mariano Rajoy expressed sympathy for the demonstrators and termed the high level of youth unemployment "unacceptable". He was quick to place the blame on Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the man who beat him in 2008:

"Zapatero made a mistake. First he did not see the crisis, then he was wrong on the measures and then he spent money we did not have. And he has put us in a very difficult situation," he said.

Zapatero, in an attempt to retain investor confidence in Spain and avoid the humiliating default that has befallen neighboring Portugal, has imposed an austerity program that has deepened unemployment. While Zapatero has ruled out a bid for 3rd term in the national elections next March, the voters are interested in punishing the Socialists.  The Socialist base is apathetic about the elections and many may stay at home.

A major mover of the Spanish economy has been tourism and the building of retirement homes. Many of these coastal retirement homes are unoccupied, mute witnesses to the Spanish and European economic downturn.

Local elections are seen as a precursor to the national elections, although the PP narrow 2007 election victory did not translate into victory in the 2008 elections. The difference is that in 2007 the PP led the Socialists only by 1%, but now the predicted spread is expected to be 6%. Secondly, both the Socialists and the PP gained in the 2008 elections where the Socialists cut into support for the Basque and Catalan parties, particularly after a Socialist politician was assassinated by Basque terrorists. This will not recur.

The regional elections can also impact the economic question. As part of an effort to diffuse national separatism in Spain, Spanish regions enjoy a greater the degree of fiscal autonomy than other European regions. While at the federal level, Spain has convinced investors that it has a handle on the debt crisis, the regional elections may produce the discovery that the Spanish regions are heavily indebted. This will further complicate Spain's and, by extension, the EU's economic picture.