Madrid – The governing Socialist Party suffered heavy losses on Sunday in regional and municipal elections, even as tens of thousands of Spaniards calling themselves the “indignant” said they would pursue their protests to force an overhaul of the country’s political system.
Conceding defeat on Sunday night, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said that his Socialist Party had been understandably punished by voters for overseeing an economic crisis that had left Spain with a 21 percent jobless rate, more than twice the European average.
“These results are very clearly related to the effects of the economic crisis that we have been suffering for almost three years,” Mr. Zapatero said in a televised address. “Almost two million jobs have been destroyed and I know that a lot of Spaniards are facing serious problems. Today, without a doubt, they have expressed their discomfort.”
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Meanwhile, underscoring how they have unexpectedly seized the initiative from established political parties, trade unions and other institutions, thousands of protesters gathered Sunday for an eighth consecutive day in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid as well as the main squares in other cities.
The youth-led movement, the first to manifest in any meaningful way since austerity began to bite in Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, has caught Spain’s traditional politicians flat-footed. At the same time, some of the campaign’s participants have been struggling to come to terms with their own success and grappling with the need to give more coherence to their wide-ranging grievances in order to keep their campaign alive beyond the election.
The demonstrators, who insist that they have no party affiliation, want a more representative democratic system and are demanding an end to political corruption. Their anger toward established parties has been fueled by the debt crisis and the surge in joblessness, but their grievances also include a call for a cut in military spending, the closing of nuclear power plants and the end of some laws, like recent legislation aimed at punishing digital piracy.
The groups that have turned Madrid’s Puerta del Sol into the epicenter of the nationwide movement plan to remain there until at least next Sunday. The protests in Barcelona, the second-largest Spanish city, are expected to culminate in a major march on June 15, to end in front of the Catalan Parliament.
“If you had told me a few months ago that thousands of people would take to the streets to complain about our political system,” said one protester, María Subinas, “I would have found it hard to believe, because it looked like we were an apathetic generation that was incapable of responding to a crisis even when it was destroying our jobs like a tsunami.” Ms. Subinas, 33, who has been in Puerta del Sol since last Sunday, added, “The message has surely gone through to politicians that they can’t just keep ignoring our frustrations and pretend that nothing has changed.”
The Popular Party won 37.6 percent of the votes on Sunday, compared with 27.8 percent for the Socialists, according to preliminary results released at midnight with 98 percent of the votes counted. Despite popular discontent with established parties, turnout rose to 66 percent from 63 percent four years earlier.
Mr. Zapatero, who has been in office since 2004, announced in April that he would not seek a third term, and the extent of the Socialists’ loss suggests that, even with a new leader, the party will struggle to hold on to power in the general election, expected next March.
Among smaller parties to make notable gains on Sunday was Bildu, a Basque independence party, which won 1.4 percent of the national vote and could secure control of San Sebastián and some other Basque town halls. Bildu was allowed to take part in the election only after a court ruling, amid concerns over its suspected links to ETA, the violent separatist group.
The Socialists lost control in Barcelona and Seville, two of the nation’s largest cities.