As young — and not-so-young — people continued to occupy the centres of over 50 Spanish cities in defiance of a ban on such gatherings immediately before elections, the Spanish socialist party (PSOE) of Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero suffered a crushing defeat in Spain's local and regional polls on May 22. The main opposition, the conservative Popular Party (PP), won in 11 of the 13 regions where elections took place, including Castilla-La Mancha, which the PSOE had held since the first post-Franco elections in 1978. The socialists' municipal results were as bad as their regional ones, and saw them lose Barcelona, the country's second city and PSOE stronghold, to Catalan nationalists; the conservatives also gained control of Seville, and the ruling party's municipal vote share of 27.79 per cent left it nearly 10 percentage points behind the PP. Mr. Zapatero has taken responsibility for the debacle, recognising that many Spaniards face grave difficulties and that the young are deeply anxious about their future; but he has ruled out an early general election and will hold on until his second term ends early in 2012.
That Spanish voters have been motivated to express their anger with the PSOE government is not in doubt; the 66.23 per cent turnout was nearly 2.3 percentage points higher than that for the 2007 municipal polls. Spain has faced a severe economic crisis since the financial and property bubble burst in 2008, and its current unemployment rate of over 21 per cent is the highest in the eurozone. It would, however, be premature to conclude that the results signify an endorsement of the conservative ideology. Blank and spoilt ballot papers added up to 4.2 per cent of the total, and the protesters camping in city squares seemed almost indifferent to the outcome. Secondly, young Spanish adults are in a particularly dire position, with unemployment rate approaching 45 per cent in the 18-25 age cohort. It is also highly unlikely that the new PP administrations at regional or municipal level can do much about the national economic condition. Furthermore, the PP's social conservatism, manifested in a confrontational attitude to many of Mr. Zapatero's first-term reforms — such as the legalisation of same-sex marriages — is likely to invite great hostility among the kinds of young people who use social networks to communicate and who have likened their occupation of Madrid's Puerta del Sol to the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square. The results of these elections, in effect, conceal much deeper fissures in the Spanish body politic; those are probably the last things the PP wants to address.