Spain's right heads for crushing election win
Spaniards voted in rain-sodden elections Sunday, 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 the polls ready to punish the ruling Socialists.
"Spain stakes its future," headlined the conservative daily ABC over a picture of opposition Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy and his wife walking with their dog.
"Spain chooses a government to confront the crisis storm," blared the front page of the leading centre-left daily El Pais.
Rajoy, 56, 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.
"I am ready for what the Spaniards want," said Rajoy, accompanied by his wife, as he cast a ballot in Madrid.
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 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 and urged Spaniards not to shun the polls. "Spain is at a historic crossroads," he told reporters.
Some voters were disillusioned, 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, Rajoy has galvanised support by promising a break from the past to fix the economy and create jobs.
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 about Spain's determination to repay its debts.
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 unpopular austerity measures last year, 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 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.
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."
© 2011 AFP