Spain's government braced for new setback in Catalonia vote
Spain's Socialist government, battered by fears of an Irish-style rescue of its economy, braced for a new blow as voters in Catalonia had the chance to vent their anger over the crisis in regional elections on Sunday.
Opinion polls indicate the 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 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 a humiliating 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 is now suffering an unemployment rate of almost 20 percent and recorded zero economic growth in the third quarter.
In response to the crisis, the government has introduced tough but unpopular austerity measures and labour reforms.
Catalonia's Socialist-led government, in power since 2003, is expected to pay the price.
The northeastern region, home to around seven million of Spain's population of some 47 million, has long accounted for the biggest share of its 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 among 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 see the region, which has its own language and distinct culture, break away 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 felt the most," said Catalan socialist deputy Joan Ferran. "But when the economy picks up again, Catalonia will be the first to recover."
A recent poll by the CEO institute showed that unemployment was the main concern for 40 percent of Catalans.
One voter, Nuria Piquer, a 48-year-old clerk, said she would "punish the political class that does not know how to react to the crisis" when she casts her ballot.
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.
Margarita Vilaclara, 18, said she voted for the CiU, a party "that will handle the crisis well."
The moderate nationalist CiU, which held power for 23 years until 2003, is also benefiting 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.
The court's 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, while the Catalan Socialist Party would win 31 or 32 seats.
Turnout by 1:00 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