- Associated Press - Thursday, November 25, 2010

MADRID | In Catalonia’s elections, many see the beginning of the end of the Socialists’ grip on power in Spain.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s party is expected to suffer a big loss in the rich northeastern region’s weekend ballot — punishment for the country’s economic woes that could snowball into a string of setbacks culminating in defeat in national elections in 2012.

Catalonia has long sought an independent voice, but is here seen as speaking for a wave of national anger over Mr. Zapatero’s handling of a financial crisis that some fear will require Spain to seek a painful and humiliating bailout.

Defeat for the Catalan Socialists would be a big blow for Mr. Zapatero as his party prepares to head into nationwide municipal elections and 13 regional government ballots in May.

“The defeat of the Socialists is all but taken for granted. No one doubts it,” said professor Javier del Rey Morato of Madrid’s Complutense University. “And it is likely to have repercussions on a national level, and may even be a foretaste of Zapatero’s defeat in the general elections of 2012.”

Catalonia, whose capital is Barcelona, is one of most powerful of Spain’s 17 semiautonomous regions and its ruling parties have always played pivotal roles in the national parliament in Madrid. With some 7 million inhabitants, it is responsible for a fifth of the country’s production.

But lately there appears to be a pall of gloom over this normally ebullient and dynamic Mediterranean coastal region.

“There’s a widespread sense of disaffection with politicians. People here are very upset,” said Josefina Elias, director of the Barcelona-based Institute Opina polling agency.

With Spanish unemployment at a eurozone high of 20 percent, Mr. Zapatero’s party has plunged in approval ratings. In Catalonia, the economic crisis is biting hard with unemployment at 17.4 percent. It is the region that has seen the most jobs lost during the crisis.

Mr. del Rey Morato said the fact that Mr. Zapatero denied for years that a crisis even existed and then made a major U-turn by introducing pro-business labor reforms and austerity measures has left people disconcerted.

“No one knows what Zapatero stands for anymore, he is naked, in absolute crisis and this affects the Socialist party everywhere,” he said.