MADRID (AP) — Spaniards were voting in regional elections Sunday that could see the conservative Popular party oust the Socialists from office in their heartland of Andalucia for the first time in over 35 years.
More than 7 million people are expected to vote at polling stations in the southern region, and also in northern Asturias.
The conservatives already rule national parliament after November's general elections, and wins in both polls would give them control over 14 of Spain's 17 regions.
Spain has been severely hit by the European financial crisis, and is struggling with a euro-zone high unemployment rate of nearly 23 percent. First quarter figures are expected to show the economy has slipped into its second recession in three years
Victory would enable Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to extend the implementation of his party's austerity measures regionally.
Andalucia, Spain's most populous region with more than 6 million registered voters, has been the Socialist party's heartland since Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship ended in 1975.
Seville, Andalucia's capital, was the birthplace of former Socialist leader Felipe Gonzalez, who served four successive mandates as prime minister from 1982-1996 and helped cement democracy after Franco and the divisive 1936-1939 civil war that had preceded his rule.
Rajoy has held off announcing his government's much awaited 2012 budget and introducing more stringent reforms so as not to jeopardize chances of victory, but this tactic has caused a sharp lack of confidence in international markets, causing the country's 10-year bonds to hit 5.51 percent on Friday before rallying slightly to end the week at just below 5.4 percent.
The rise in borrowing costs has led Olli Rehn, the European Union's economic affairs commissioner who is in charge of policing the bloc's debt and deficit limits, to insist that Spain exert greater budget discipline and push through more stringent austerity measures.
Two weeks ago, Rehn said giving Spain a bit of leeway did not violate recently introduced tighter rules against overspending in the Euro zone.
Now, with Spain apparently heading toward one of Europe's deeper recessions, Rehn has called on Rajoy to regain market confidence by sticking to a deficit target of 3 percent of economic output by next year.
Spain's 2011 deficit came in at 8.5 percent of GDP instead of the 6 percent forecast.