Millions of Spaniards voted in municipal and regional elections yesterday, viewed as a mid-term referendum on the conservative Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, and his controversial support for the US-led invasion of Iraq.
The vote was also being seen as a test of the government's handling of the Prestige oil spill last November, Spain's worst environmental disaster.
The elections will determine the political stripe of more than 8,000 town halls across Spain, and the make-up of 13 of the 17 autonomous regions. Initial indications suggested an almost five-point rise in voter turn-out, and possible gains for the opposition Socialists.
"The campaign has been high profile in recent weeks, which has mobilised more voters," said Juan Diez, of the Sociological, Economic and Political Analysis think-tank. "When there is a larger turn-out, historically it favours the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, and I believe they could pull ahead of the PP by two or three points, at least in the municipal vote."
Mr Aznar, 50, has said he will step down after next year's general elections. Nevertheless, his PP administration has suffered in recent months for its support for the war in Iraq, which was opposed by nine out of 10 Spaniards, and brought more than 2 million people out on to the streets in protest.
Opposition parties also made headway over the ruling PP because of its tardy handling of the Prestige oil spill. The government is blamed for aggravating the disaster when it ordered the tanker to be towed out to sea. Hundreds of miles of coastline were fouled with toxic sludge, at an estimated cost to Galicia's fishing industry of €132m (£95m).
Mr Aznar, who has campaigned hard, turned out to vote early at a polling station in the capital, accompanied by his wife, Ana Botella, 48. She launched her political career in the elections, with third place on the conservatives' list for Madrid City Council.
Last week the electoral authorities ordered anti-war placards to be removed from balconies near polling stations, but the invasion of Iraq clearly weighed heavily among voters' concerns yesterday. Many voters defied election rules by wearing anti-war and anti-Aznar stickers and badges into the polling stations.
Jaime Perez, a civil servant, told The Independent after casting his vote in Madrid: "The whole issue of the war has influenced me a lot, as it was unjust. I have voted for the PP in the past, but this time I've voted for the Socialists."
The police were on the alert for violence from the outlawed Basque separatist group Eta after more than 1,000 candidates sympathetic to the group's banned political wing, Batasuna, were struck from the ballot. But there were just three arrests in the troubled region yesterday. Two people were arrested in Bilbao and another man was detained in the nearby town of Bergara for handing out leaflets supporting the AuB party, the name assumed by Batasuna after it was banned last year.Reuse content