Spaniards head to the polls today for regional and municipal elections, with early opinion polls suggesting both the ruling party and the opposition will be punished severely by voters who have grown tired of the country’s ongoing economic troubles.
With all the local councils at stake, the results of Sunday’s vote will set the bar for upcoming national elections scheduled to take place later this year.
Both the ruling Popular Party (PP) and leading opposition Socialists (PSOE) are being challenged by the rise of populist parties such as Podemos, which promises to fight against tough austerity measures.
Having finished third in the regional elections in Andalusia in March, the leftist Podemos party came close to unseating the PSOE, which has governed the southern region for over three decades.
A report released by Eurostat shows that five Spanish regions have the highest rate of unemployment in the entire EU, with Andalusia recording the highest rate of 34.8 percent.
Andalusia is followed by Canarias with 32.4 percent, Ceuta with 31.9 percent, Extremadura with 29.8 percent and finally Castilla-la Mancha with 29.0 percent.
Some of these regions stand out with the highest rate of unemployment among youth across the EU with Ceuta at 67.5 percent, Andalusia 61.5 percent, Castilla-la Mancha 61.3 percent and Canarias with 57.4 percent.
Podemos also won five seats in last year's European Parliament elections, just months after its launch in January 2014.
Catalan flags banned
Spain’s Central Electoral Board banned Catalan flags from public buildings before the elections upon the request of anti-secession group Societat Civil Catalana (SCC).
Authorities in Spain’s north-eastern province of Catalonia were urged to "refrain from placing symbols that can be considered partisan on public buildings” and “remove those that have already been placed before the electoral process."
However, the pro-independence Catalan National Assembly (ANC) called on citizens in the province to hang their flags from their balconies out of protest.
The Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party also called for civil disobedience on election day, while left-wing nationalist Popular Unity Candidates (CUP) deputy David Fernandez said his party will “solemnly disobey” the ruling.
Those who refuse to obey the ruling may receive a fine of up to €1,000 ($1,100).
Earlier this year, nationalist parties in Catalonia signed a “road map” agreement to become independent by 2017 if their pro-independence coalition is successful in the regional parliamentary elections on Sept. 27.
The Catalan Nationalist Party, Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and a number of associates agreed to develop a new constitution to be drafted “within 10 months” in the event that they decide to breakaway from Madrid.
The parties also agreed to set up institutions that will be at the foundation of an independent Catalan state, while Catalan President Artur Mas stated in a document the 18 months after the September polls will serve as a transition period towards independence.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has stood against the secession, saying Catalan independence would be bad for Catalans and "all other Spaniards."
In a non-binding referendum held last November, condemned by Madrid as being “unconstitutional,” over 80 percent of Catalans voted in favour of independence, with a turnout of two million people out of an estimated 5.4 million eligible voters.