Voting started Sunday in Spain's wealthy and influential northeastern Catalonia region in elections likely to oust the incumbent Socialist party in a rebuke that could presage a national trend.
Some 5.3 million Catalans are eligible to vote for regional leaders who will take up 135 local parliament seats. Polls predict a swing to the conservative nationalist Convergence and Union party, know as CiU.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's party is expected to suffer losses as a reaction to the country's slumping economy, a setback that could be mirrored nationwide in municipal elections and 13 regional government ballots in May.
Defeat for Catalan Socialists, who have governed two terms in coalition with two other parties, would be a blow to Zapatero who faces national elections in 2012.
Catalonia, whose capital city is Barcelona, is one of Spain's 17 semiautonomous regions with a total population of more than seven million inhabitants. It is known for its industrious and thrifty people who have their own language and ancient culture, and who are responsible for one-fifth of the country's production.
Catalans have long sought an independent voice, but in this poll they are most likely to express their disillusionment with Zapatero's handling of the financial crisis. A recent Opina poll said 42 percent of Catalans support independence, up 12 percentage points from 2003.
The region also suffered a setback in June, when Spain's Constitutional Court diluted a new charter giving the region more self-rule but rejecting its bid to refer to itself as a nation.
The charter had been promised by Zapatero and protests against the court ruling drew a million people onto Barcelona's streets.
Associated Press writer Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.