MADRID — Spain's ruling Socialists braced for stinging losses in regional and municipal elections Sunday as unprecedented street protests over the highest unemployment in the 17-nation eurozone refused to fade away.
The elections are a key test of how much the party's support has crumbled due to its handling of Spain's real estate collapse and its subsequent debt crisis, and are seen as a prelude to general elections next year.
A growing protest movement reflects the strong disillusionment felt by Spaniards toward both main parties and a political system they say that favors economic interests over ordinary people.
"My hope is that our leaders will react responsibly to the protests we've been seeing and learn how to spend with prudence on the things our society needs," said civil servant Inmaculada Alfaro, 54.
More than 34 million people were eligible to vote for seats in 13 of Spain's 17 semiautonomous regional governments and for more than 8,000 city halls nationwide.
"I call for, encourage and appeal for a responsible, big turnout in these May 22 regional and municipal elections in all of Spain," Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said as he emerged with his wife from casting his ballot.
Voter turnout by 2 p.m. stood at 35.9 percent, 1.7 percent higher than in similar elections in 2007, the electoral commission said.
Polls indicate Zapatero's party could suffer the humiliation of losing historic Socialist strongholds.
The financial crisis has forced deep job cuts and left Spain burdened with 21.3 percent unemployment. The jobless rate among the young stands at 40 percent and a total of 4.9 million people are out of work in Spain, the highest number since 1997.
A large proportion of those who still have jobs earn just €1,000 ($1,400) or less per month.
And there is little hope on the horizon for the rest of the year. Spain is forecasting limp growth of just 1.3 percent for 2011, but even the Bank of Spain says that prediction is optimistic.
Protest camps of mainly young people sprang up in cities around the country a week ago and swelled to tens of thousands of demonstrators who on Saturday defied a government ban on gatherings the day before an election.
The government did not act to disperse the demonstrators, including the largest group camped out in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square opposite city hall. Protesters on Sunday voted to stay in that square until at least May 29.
Many said they had been inspired by pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that had toppled long-standing and corrupt dictators.
Despite the likely losses for the Socialists, Spaniards are also clearly disillusioned with the opposition conservative Popular Party.
"Politicians like the ones here in Madrid that go around spending money on official cars only seem to care about their own careers and about going one better than the opposition," said salesman Joaquin Ribes, 28.
Madrid has been ruled by the Popular Party since 1995.