Spaniards battling a deep recession voted on Sunday in two snap regional elections that could deal a blow to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Rajoy’s right-leaning Popular Party has imposed tough austerity measures on the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy and now faces votes in the premier’s home region of Galicia and in the Basque Country.
The elections are full of risks for the Spanish leader as he agonises over whether and when to snatch a euro zone rescue line to help finance the nation’s soaring public debt.
Many investors believe the prime minister is waiting to get the two votes out of the way before requesting a rescue, keeping world financial markets on edge.
In Galicia, which has 2.7 million eligible voters including 400,000 abroad, the Popular Party was defending a tight, absolute majority. Opinion polls gave it hopes of keeping power.
But Rajoy risks a humiliating upset if his prescription of deep spending cuts and higher taxes causes voters in Galicia, where the unemployment rate is 21 per cent, to punish his party.
Economic pain and cuts in education and health are fuelling discontent across the country’s 17 powerful regions.
In the rain-swept Basque Country, a pro-independence coalition is expected to enjoy a surge in support in the first regional vote since armed separatists ETA renounced the use of bombs and guns.
One voter, 43-year-old engineer Inaki Arteaga, said both the economy and the new climate in the Basque Country weighed on his mind.
“These elections have two keys: the economy and the fact that this time anyone who wants to can vote,” he said.
A 60-year-old unemployed electrician, Elvira Saotua, said young people were desperate for jobs. “It is very bad for the young people around here. Most of them don’t have work,” she said.
Rajoy, who is already struggling to contain pro-independence demands in northeastern Catalonia, which goes to the polls on November 25, has urged Spaniards to stay united.
To vote for his Popular Party “is to bet on the values that unite all Spaniards -- values that are the same for us in Galicia, in the Basque Country, Catalonia and all of Spain,” he said before the elections.
“There is a choice between stability, moderation and common sense, or confusion, uncertainty and constant stress,” he warned.
The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), a conservative nationalist party, was ahead in opinion polls before the Basque vote, in which nearly 1.8 million people are eligible to cast ballots.
But a new coalition of left-wing Basque separatists, Euskal Herria Bildu, is likely to come second. The alliance has filled the space left by the ETA-linked Batasuna party, which was outlawed in 2003.
The big question is whether the Basque National Party will seek an alliance with Bildu or another party.
“If it is with Bildu, the question of (Basque) identity, of ties with Spain, will play a central role in its coalition,” said Anton Losada, political science professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela.
ETA is blamed for 829 deaths during its four-decade armed campaign for an independent Basque homeland in parts of southern France and in the northern Spanish region.
Though the Basque unemployment rate is well below the national average of 25 per cent it remains high even at 14.5 per cent, and central government demands for spending cuts have fed resentment against Madrid.
On October 20, last year, ETA announced a “definitive end” to its armed activities, but has not formally disarmed or disbanded as the Spanish government demands.