Spain's right heads for crushing election win
Spaniards voted in rain-sodden elections Sunday that were all but certain to hand a thundering victory to the right and topple yet another debt-laden eurozone government.
Bowed by a 21.5 percent jobless rate, economic stagnation and deep spending cuts, the first voters of the 36 million-strong Spanish electorate headed to polls ready to punish the ruling Socialists.
"Spain chooses a government to confront the crisis storm," blared the front page of the leading centre-left daily El Pais.
"Spain stakes its future," headlined the conservative daily ABC.
Opposition Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy has a lead of about 15 percentage points over the Socialists, the latest polls showed, enough for an absolute majority in parliament and a free hand to reform.
Voters vented anger with the ruling Socialists over the economic crisis that has pushed the number of unemployed close to five million, but some were also wary of Rajoy, who has promised even deeper spending cuts.
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."
If the polls are right, Spain would become the last of the so-called periphery eurozone nations to ditch its government this year, after the debt crisis toppled rulers of Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Italy.
The ruling party's candidate, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, 60, cast his vote in Madrid shortly after the polls opened and urged Spaniards not to shun the polls.
"Spain is at a historic crossroads," he told reporters. "The next four years are very important for our future and in these conditions it is even more important that people vote."
Some voters expressed disillusion, however.
"I am going to cast a blank ballot," said 46-year-old schoolteacher Fernando Javier Alvarez, sheltering under an umbrella at a voting station in a school in southern Madrid.
"The (Socialist Party) PSOE made five million people unemployed and lied to us about the economic crisis," said Alvarez. "All the parties of the left and right reflect the same ideals."
Though considered uncharismatic even by many of his supporters, the 56-year-old Rajoy has galvanised support by promising a break from the past to fix the economy and create jobs.
Analysts say Sunday's winner must quickly impose reforms and cut costs to reassure world markets about Spain's determination to repay its debts.
Rajoy has 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.
Spain's risk premium -- the extra interest rate investors demand 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 enacted austerity measures from last year that bled further support, cutting public sector wages by an average 5.0 percent, freezing pensions and raising the retirement age from 65 to 67.
A nationwide protest movement erupted in May to vent anger over the high jobless rate and perceived corruption among politicians. Hundreds of "indignant" protesters rallied in Madrid in the days leading to the vote.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, some analysts say the answer to Spain's problems lies beyond its borders, with the European Central Bank.
Further labour and banking reforms "may not be enough to stabilise the Spanish sovereign," analysts at Barclays Capital warned. "Ultimately, we think it likely that the ECB will need to step up its support."
Once the votes are counted on Sunday night, it will take a month for the new prime minister to be formally sworn in.
© 2011 AFP