- Basque separatists - elections - ETA - José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero - peace - Spain
AFP - Voters in Spain's northern Basque and Galicia regions went to the polls Sunday in the first electoral test for the country's ruling Socialists since the nation plunged into recession.
In the Basque Country, the vote takes place under the shadow of the armed separatist group ETA, which has condemned the polls and staged two bomb attacks last month.
A total of around four million people are eligible to vote to elect regional parliaments in what are the first elections since the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was returned to power one year ago.
Since then, the global financial crisis has accelerated the collapse of Spain's property market after a decade-long boom, pushing the country into recession.
The unemployment rate soared to 13.9 percent in the last quarter of 2008, the highest in the 27-nation European Union.
In Sunday's polls, Zapatero will be seeking to measure the degree of support he has to handle the crisis.
Opinion polls indicate the Socialists could end the 30-year hold on power by the Basque Nationalist Party in the northern Basque region.
A Socialist victory in the wealthy semi-autonomous region would mark the first time since the country returned to democracy in 1975 that the Basque Country is governed by a party that unquestionably backs keeping it as part of Spain.
Analysts credit the rise in support for the Socialists in part to Zapatero's bid during his first term to negotiate peace with ETA, blamed for 825 deaths in its 40-year campaign for an independent Basque homeland.
Those negotiations eventually failed and the group resumed its attacks.
Spain's Supreme Court last month banned two pro-independence parties from participating in Sunday's election due to their links to ETA and its outlawed political wing Batasuna.
ETA responded to the court decision by staging its first attack in the Spanish capital since December 2006, setting off a van packed with explosives in a business district, causing extensive damage but no injuries.
Late last month week, another ETA bomb exploded outside the headquarters of the Basque Socialist Party in the town of Lazkao, causing major damage but no injuries.
The bombings raised fears that the regional election could be marred by further ETA attacks.
The Basque interior ministry said it is deploying 5,000 police throughout the region Sunday, or more than half of its entire force of 8,000.
In the rugged northwestern seafaring region of Galicia, the Socialists hope to hold on to the power they won in 2005, but polls point to a tight race with the conservative Popular Party (PP), Spain's main opposition party.
The election results could also determine the future of PP leader Mariano Rajoy, who has struggled with party infighting following two successive national election defeats.
Rajoy has campaigned hard in his home region of Galicia, but the party has been hit by allegations of corruption in Madrid and several other regions involving businessmen close to the PP.
Polling stations opened in the two regions at 9 am (0800 GMT) and close at 8 pm, when local television stations are expected to release the results of exit polls.
The first official results from Basque Country are to be available at 9:30 pm, with final provisional results released 90 minutes later.