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Spain’s ruling Socialists suffer local election thumping

Spain’s ruling Socialists suffered a thumping in local elections Sunday as protesters vented outrage over the highest jobless rate in the industrialized world.

Support for Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s party crumbled in the face of the beleaguered economy and massive street protests, a grim omen for 2012 general elections.

With 90.40 percent of the municipal ballots counted, the Socialists had just 27.86 percent of the total vote compared to 37.53 percent for their conservative Popular Party opponents.

"The Popular Party has to be congratulated as they have amply won the municipal elections in Spain," Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told a news conference.

Grinding in the humiliation, Socialists were set to lose Barcelona, a city they have run since since the first city elections in 1979, four years after the death of General Francisco Franco, an exit poll said.

More than 34 million people were eligible to vote Sunday, choosing 8,116 mayors, 68,400 town councillors and 824 members of regional parliaments for 13 of the 17 semi-autonomous regions.

Just over 65 percent of the electorate cast a vote.

The big winner of the night was the conservative opposition leader Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party, widely forecast to romp into government next year for the first time in eight years.

Seething demonstrators 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 organized 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" — a 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 Barcelona, the Catalan nationalist party CiU led the vote and was set to take 14-16 seats in the 41-seat chamber, up from 12 now, said an exit poll by Ipsos Ecoconsulting for Catalan public television TV3.

The Socialists, who had run a minority government in Barcelona with 14 seats since the last elections four years ago, were poised to take just 10-12 seats, it said.

The conservative Popular Party of Catalonia was set to win seven-eight seats, compared to seven now, the exit poll said.

Despite Zapatero’s promise not to stand in the next general elections due next year, partial ballot counts suggested the Popular Party would snatch other Socialist Party bastions including Seville and the central region of Castilla-La Mancha.