Image: A man votes in Madrid
Paul White  /  AP
A man votes at a polling station in Madrid on Sunday. The ruling Socialist Party is bracing itself for stinging losses as voting begins amid protests in regional and municipal elections throughout Spain. The elections are a key test of how the party's support has crumbled due to soaring unemployment and its handling of the financial crisis, a prelude to general elections next year.
updated 5/22/2011 5:34:00 PM ET 2011-05-22T21:34:00

Spain's ruling Socialists suffered a crushing defeat to conservatives in municipal and regional elections Sunday, losing even historic strongholds against a backdrop of economic crisis and unprecedented street sit-ins by Spaniards furious with what they see as selfish and corrupt politicians.

With more than 90 percent of the municipal votes counted, the opposition Popular Party had an advantage of 10 percentage points and more than two million votes — compared to less than a point and 150,000 votes in the last such vote in 2007.

A sea of jubilant supporters waving blue and white Popular Party flags gathered outside party headquarters as the final votes were counted. Partial or complete results showed that the party also won virtually all of the 13 regional government that were up for grabs.

The results put the Popular Party in an even stronger position to win general elections due in about a year.

More than 34 million people were eligible to vote for seats in 13 of Spain's 17 semiautonomous regional governments and for more than 8,000 city halls nationwide.

Story: Spain voting begins amid mass protests

"I call for, encourage and appeal for a responsible, big turnout in these May 22 regional and municipal elections in all of Spain," Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said as he emerged with his wife from casting his ballot.

Voter turnout by 2 p.m. stood at 35.9 percent, 1.7 percent higher than in similar elections in 2007, the electoral commission said.

The financial crisis has forced deep job cuts and left Spain burdened with 21.3 percent unemployment. The jobless rate among the young stands at 40 percent and a total of 4.9 million people are out of work in Spain, the highest number since 1997.

A large proportion of those who still have jobs earn just €1,000 ($1,400) or less per month.

And there is little hope on the horizon for the rest of the year. Spain is forecasting limp growth of just 1.3 percent for 2011, but even the Bank of Spain says that prediction is optimistic.

Protest camps of mainly young people sprang up in cities around the country a week ago and swelled to tens of thousands of demonstrators who on Saturday defied a government ban on gatherings the day before an election.

The government did not act to disperse the demonstrators, including the largest group camped out in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square opposite city hall. Protesters on Sunday voted to stay in that square until at least May 29.

Many said they had been inspired by pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that had toppled long-standing and corrupt dictators.

Despite the likely losses for the Socialists, Spaniards are also clearly disillusioned with the opposition conservative Popular Party.

"Politicians like the ones here in Madrid that go around spending money on official cars only seem to care about their own careers and about going one better than the opposition," said salesman Joaquin Ribes, 28.

Madrid has been ruled by the Popular Party since 1995.

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