Madrid: Spain's ruling Socialists sustained spectacular local election losses on Sunday as protesters vented outrage over the highest jobless rate in the industrialised world.
Support for the government collapsed in the face of the beleaguered economy, soaring unemployment and massive street protests, a grim omen for 2012 general elections.
With 99.80 percent of the municipal ballots counted, the Socialists lagged by more than two million votes, capturing just 27.79 percent of the total compared to 37.54 percent for the conservative Popular Party.
"The results of the vote show that the Socialist Party has clearly lost today's elections. We have suffered a broad setback compared to four years ago," Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said.
Three years of economic crisis took their toll, said Zapatero, who has promised not to stand for re-election.
"It destroyed thousands of jobs. It is a crisis that had profound effects on citizens' morale. I know that many Spaniards suffer great hardship and fear for their futures," the Prime Minister told a news conference.
"Today, without doubt, they expressed their discontent," he said.
But the Prime Minister refused to contemplate calling early elections, vowing to pursue reforms to fix the economy and grow jobs until the end of his mandate.
Grinding in the humiliation, Socialists lost historic bastions Seville and Barcelona, a city they had run since the first municipal vote in 1979 four years after the death of General Francisco Franco.
About 65 percent of the 34 million eligible voters cast a ballot to choose 8,116 mayors, 68,400 town councillors and 824 members of regional Parliaments for 13 of the 17 semi-autonomous regions.
Of the 13 regional Parliaments up for grabs, the Socialists were outvoted in every one including former stronghold Castilla-La Mancha but should cling on in Extramadura as part of a left-wing coalition.
The big winner of the night was opposition leader Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party, widely forecast to sweep into government next year for the first time in eight years.
"Today is a beautiful day for our party. We have achieved the best result in our history in municipal and regional elections," Rajoy told cheering supporters waving blue party flags outside the Madrid headquarters.
Demonstrators had packed city squares from Barcelona to the holiday island of Majorca, refusing to budge as they accused the major Spanish parties of leading the country to economic ruin.
In a plastic-covered protest camp in central Madrid's Puerta del Sol square, spearhead of the nationwide action, thousands of people rallied late Sunday after activists vowed to stay put until May 29 at least.
The spontaneous popular protests, slickly organised via Twitter and Facebook since May 15, were the largest since Spain's property bubble collapsed in 2008 destroying millions of jobs.
Even as the economy grew gingerly this year, the unemployment rate shot to 21.19 percent in the first quarter, the highest in the industrialised world. For under-25s, the rate in February was 44.6 percent.
Protesters describe themselves as the "indignant", and are known variously as "M-15" in reference to their demonstration's birth date, "Spanish Revolution" and "Real Democracy Now".
"I have never voted in my life because I don't see myself reflected in the politicians, I never felt they listen to us," said 20-year-old Javier Pena Pintor in Madrid.
In the northern semi-autonomous Basque Country, the focus was on a new political force, Bildu, which fielded candidates after a court battle to prove it was not a mouthpiece for armed separatist group ETA.
In municipal elections, Bildu exceeded expectations and took the most votes in the region's second largest city, San Sebastian.
Overall in the Basque country, Bildu was second in the municipal vote with more than a quarter of the total, behind the Basque Nationalist Party's 30 percent but well ahead of the Socialists' 16 percent.
First Published: Monday, May 23, 2011, 08:47