Spain's right charges to victory in election
Spain's right thundered towards near-certain victory in rain-soaked elections Sunday as voters punished yet another eurozone government trapped by a spiralling debt crisis.
Bowed by a 21.5 percent jobless rate, a stalled economy and spending cuts, the 36 million-strong electorate appeared set to cast aside the ruling Socialists in a landslide.
Opposition leader Mariano Rajoy's conservative Popular Party could garner its biggest winning margin since Spanish democracy returned after the death of General Francisco Franco on this day in 1975, polls showed.
Rajoy, 56, has a lead of about 15 percentage points over the Socialists, the latest polls said, enough for an absolute majority in parliament and a free hand to reform the eurozone's fourth biggest economy.
"I am ready for what the Spaniards want," said Rajoy, accompanied by his wife, as he cast a ballot in Madrid.
If the polls are right, Spain would become the fifth and last of the so-called periphery eurozone nations to ditch its government this year after Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Italy.
Octavio Arginano, a retired 67-year-old factory worker, said he voted for the right for the first time in his life.
"My son has been unemployed for over a year, my daughter earns just 600 euros ($800) a month looking after young children," he said as he left a polling station in the Madrid neighbourhood of Lavapies.
"There has to be a change although I am not sure anyone knows what to do to get us out of this situation."
Voters, who will choose 350 members of the lower house Congress of Deputies and 208 members of the Senate, fumed over an economic crisis that has pushed the number of unemployed close to five million.
The ruling party's candidate, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, 60, had warned voters that the right was hiding a programme to cut precious health and education services.
As he cast his vote in Madrid, Rubalcaba voters not to shun the polls.
"Spain is at a historic crossroads," he told reporters.
Turnout by the early afternoon was just under 38 percent, about two and a half points lower than at the same point in voting in the 2008 election, the interior ministry said.
Though considered uncharismatic, the grey-bearded Rajoy has won support from voters lured by his promise of a break from the past to fix the economy and create jobs, even if it means more austerity.
He vowed to make cuts "everywhere", except for pensions, so as to meet Spain's target of cutting the public deficit to 4.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 from 9.3 percent last year.
Analysts say the victor, who will be sworn in from December 20, must quickly impose reforms to reassure world markets.
Spain's risk premium -- the extra interest rate investors demand to buy Spanish compared with safe-haven German debt -- shot to a euro-era high of more than 500 basis points in the days ahead of the vote.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government was widely blamed for reacting late to the 2008 property market implosion, which combined with a global financial crisis to throw millions out of work.
As his government battled to cut back spending and avoid a disastrous loss of confidence in the debt markets, it cut public sector wages by an average 5.0 percent, froze pensions and raised the retirement age from 65 to 67.
Zapatero called the election four months early to give a new government the chance to confront the crisis. After two terms and nearly eight years in office, he decided not to run again.
A nationwide protest movement erupted in May 2011 to vent anger over the high jobless rate and political corruption.
Hundreds of "indignant" protesters rallied in Madrid in the days before the election and analysts say many more may flood the streets next year if the cuts go even deeper.
© 2011 AFP