The beachside Valencia region embodies Spain's ills — and voters' hunger for change in looming elections.
“The term that defines Spaniards right now is 'fed up', we are fed up and we want change,” said one voter in the eastern city of Valencia, Pedro Morales, 59.
He was visiting a stand set up by the fast-growing party Ciudadanos ahead of municipal and regional elections on May 24 and a general election due around November.
Polls suggest this centre-right party will gain most from the plunge in support for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative Popular Party (PP).
The results in Valencia on Sunday “will be key for the legislative elections” due around November, said Jose Pablo Ferrandiz, a sociologist at polling firm Metroscopia.
Spain's two big political parties, the PP and the opposition Socialists, have lost support as Ciudadanos and the left-wing protest party Podemos have surged.
Set among orange groves and sprawling holiday complexes, Valencia will be a key test for this new electoral dynamic.
It is a stronghold of the Popular Party and reputedly one of the most corrupt regions in Spain.
Over 100 top local officials in Valencia are under investigation for graft, including two former heads of the regional government.
Morales, a computer specialist, said he felt “constantly ridiculed” by such behaviour among elected officials.
Several of Spain's biggest graft scandals in recent years have their roots in Valencia, including a case of alleged embezzlement by King Felipe VI's brother-in-law.
The latest one erupted this month when a recording emerged that appeared to show a top official in Valencia's regional government counting money from a bribe he allegedly received.
The local branch of the Popular Party immediately suspended him, under pressure from Ciudadanos and Podemos, who have campaigned fiercely against corruption.
The iconic City of Arts and Sciences was inaugerated in 2005 Photo: Jose Jordan / AFP
Morales lashed out against the “squandering” of public money by the Valencia regional government, which has debts of €37 billion ($41 billion).
He cited the city's iconic new cultural complex, the City of Arts and Sciences, as an example.
Its opera house, inaugurated in 2005, is covered in scaffolding because large chunks of its mosaic facade have fallen off.
“It is a bottomless pit” for taxpayers' money, said Miguel Angel Vera, a local representative of Spain's largest trade union, Comisiones Obreras.
Valencia's left-wing opposition says the complex cost 1.2 billion euros, four times the amount originally budgeted.
The region dreamed of becoming a European California during the doomed construction boom, opening massive new film studios in 2007.
Leaders redeveloped the port to host the America's Cup, the world's premier sailing competition, in 2007 and 2010.
Officials also set up a street circuit to host the European Grand Prix between 2008 and 2012. The track has since been deserted.
“They sold the idea that we all could get rich,” said Vera.
Valencia's traditional textile and toy industries were allowed to decline and fertile land was built over, he said.
When the construction boom went bust in 2008, Valencia and the rest of Spain plunged into recession.
'We need change'
To reduce its debt, Valencia slashed its social spending in areas such as education and health, said sociologist Andreu Tobarra, one of the leaders of the local branch of Podemos.
“They took money from basic social services, from the neediest people,” he said.
Fernando Giner, the Ciudadanos candidate for mayor, campaigning on his bicycle. Photo: Jose Jordan / AFP
Fernando Giner, the Ciudadanos candidate for mayor in the city, is looking to oust Rita Barbera, the PP incumbent for the past 24 years.
She has become a symbol of the city with her eternal tan, luxury handbags and chauffeur-driven cars.
Meanwhile, Spain's economic downturn has left 33 percent of Valencia's population at risk of poverty, Giner said.
“I never could imagine that in 2015, in Valencia, the biggest need we would have is food,” he said, before leaving the campaign stand on his bicycle.
“In Valencia and in Spain, everyone, we all need a change,” Carmen Bujosa, a 64-year-old retired secretary, called after him.
By Anna Cuenca / AFP