Spain's government braced for new setback in Catalonia vote
Spain's Socialist government, battered by fears of an Irish-style rescue of its troubled economy, braced for a new blow as voters went to the polls in regional elections in Catalonia on Sunday.
Polls indicate voters in what has traditionally been Spain's economic powerhouse will kick out the Socialist-led coalition in favour of the centre-right nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) coalition.
Such an outcome would mark the end of seven years of Socialist government in the region and the return of the CiU, which held power for 23 years until 2003.
It would also be a new setback for the central government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, which is battling deep concerns on world financial markets that Spain could follow Greece and Ireland in seeking an EU bailout of its economy.
Spain's economy was hard hit by the bursting of a massive property bubble and the global economic crisis in 2008 and 2009, and it is now suffering an unemployment rate of almost 20 percent and recorded zero economic growth in the third quarter.
Catalonia, home to around seven million of Spain's population of some 47 million, has long accounted for the biggest share of Spain's gross domestic product.
But data published in March by Spanish thinktank Funcas showed that in 2009 Madrid had for the first time accounted for the biggest share of the country's economic output, 18.71 percent, just ahead of Catalonia's 18.68 percent.
In terms of revenue per capita it remained in fourth place amongst Spain's 17 autonomous communities -- as the country's self-governed regions are called -- behind the Basque Country, Madrid and Navarra.
Being overtaken by Madrid hurt regional pride in Catalonia, where a sizeable minority would like to achieve independence from Spain.
At the same time, output by the Catalan economy, built on small- and medium-sized businesses, dropped 4.7 percent last year according to Funcas, compared to decline of 3.8 percent for Spain as a whole.
In an economic crisis, "it's in Catalonia that the effects are most felt," said Catalan socialist deputy Joan Ferran. "But when the economy picks up again, Catalonia will be the first to recover."
Carmen Darnaud, 80, said she was voting for the CiU for the first time in her life. "I'm voting for the country, because of the crisis," she said.
Nuria Piquer, a 48-year-old clerk, said she would "vote to punish the political class that does not know how to react to the crisis."
A recent poll by the CEO institute showed that unemployment was the main concern for 40 percent of Catalans.
The nationalists are also benefiting from growing tensions with Madrid over changes to a charter that gave the northeastern region 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.
The ruling "was seen as an attack on popular sovereignty," said Ferran.
Polls in Catalonia opened at 9:00 am (0800 GMT) and will close at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT), with first exit polls expected immediately afterwards.
Some 5.4 million people in the northeastern region are eligible to cast ballots at 2,721 polling stations.
Polls show the CiU could fall just short of an outright majority with 63 to 65 seats in the 135-member regional parliament, and the Catalan Socialist Party would win 31 or 32 seats.
Turnout by 1 pm (1200 GMT) was around 25 percent, just slightly below the level in the last regional elections in 2006, the regional government said.
© 2010 AFP