Spain's embattled Socialists hammered in Catalonia
Spain's ruling Socialist Party reeled Monday from a stinging defeat in regional elections in Catalonia where voters threw them out of power in anger over the country's economic woes.
The result was seen as a bad omen for the Socialists in national elections scheduled for 2012, and for further regional and municipal polls in 2011.
The central government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is already battling market fears that Spain could follow Greece and Ireland in seeking a humiliating EU bailout.
With 99.9 percent of ballots tallied, Catalans gave 62 seats to a centre-right nationalist party, the Convergence and Union (CIU), six short of an outright majority in the 135-seat parliament, and just 28 to the Catalan Socialist Party.
It was the worst result in the 32-year history of the Catalan Socialist Party, which has ruled the wealthy northeastern region since 2003.
Spain's ruling Socialist Party acknowledged that its Catalan branch suffered "a significant decrease in votes and seats," which it blamed on "the unease felt over the economic crisis and its effect on citizens, in particular unemployment."
"We also acknowledge partial responsibility and the need for a thorough appraisal," it said in a statement.
Spain's leading daily El Pais said the election outcome marked "the opening of a period of transition that will be extended until a new political cycle is finally established after the next general elections."
Spain's economy was hard hit by the bursting of a massive property bubble and the global economic crisis in 2008 and 2009. Spain suffers from an unemployment rate of about 20 percent and recorded zero economic growth in the third quarter.
In response to the crisis, the central government has introduced tough but unpopular austerity measures and labour reforms.
Zapatero has not yet declared if he will stand as the Socialist Party's candidate for a third consecutive term in general elections scheduled for early 2012.
A sizeable minority in Catalonia, home to around seven million of Spain's population of some 47 million and which has its own language and distinct culture, would like to see the northeastern region break away from Spain.
It has long accounted for the biggest share of its gross domestic product.
But output by the Catalan economy, built on small- and medium-sized businesses, dropped 4.7 percent last year according to Spanish think tank Funcas, compared to decline of 3.8 percent for Spain as a whole.
The region, which boasts a bigger budget that Chile's, also pushed up its direct and indirect debt by 24.2 percent over a year to 29.5 billion euros as of the end of June.
A recent poll by the CEO institute showed that unemployment was the main concern for 40 percent of Catalans.
The moderate nationalist CiU, which held power for 23 years until 2003, also benefited from anger over changes to a charter approved by the Spanish parliament in 2006 and which gave Catalonia sweeping powers.
Spain's Constitutional Court in June struck down several articles of the charter that expanded the already significant powers of self rule of the Catalan government, sparking mass protests in the region.
© 2010 AFP