Spain votes in key test for new political forces
MADRID - Agence France-Presse
REUTERS PhotoSpaniards started voting May 24 for mayors and regional leaders in a key test for new protest parties that could herald a historic change in Spain's political landscape ahead of a general election.
Polls opened at 9:00 am (0700 GMT), with voters turning out to choose leaders in more than 8,000 city halls including Madrid and Barcelona, where upstart parties are polling strongly.
Leading centre-left newspaper El Pais called it a choice between "the old and the new politics". Conservative daily ABC pointed out the high level of undecided voters -- some 30 percent according to polls.
They were also choosing leaders for 13 of Spain's 17 regional governments which control health and education budgets.
The vote is a trial of strength for new political forces that have emerged since the birth in 2011 of the "Indignado" protest movement against unemployment, corruption and crisis-linked spending cuts.
It is an important warm-up for conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as he fights to stay in office in the general election due around November.
He warns that chasing out his Popular Party could disrupt Spain's economic recovery.
Two new electoral contenders, the left-wing protest party Podemos and the economically liberal centrist party Ciudadanos, are looking to make their mark.
In the city hall elections, numerous grassroots groups opposed to the government's austerity measures are running with Podemos's backing.
Analysts say the new parties could force their way into coalitions and do away with the two-party system of the past four decades.
Podemos and Ciudadanos have surged over the past year to occupy third and fourth place in the polls behind the Popular Party and the mainstream opposition Socialists.
Opinion polls showed voters were expected to punish those two big parties for the hardships of the economic crisis as well as the corruption scandals that fill Spain's newspapers and airwaves every day.
Polling stations close at 1800 GMT.