Spain's right heads for crushing election win
Bowed by unemployment and spending cuts, Spaniards went to the polls Sunday, all but certain to hand a thundering victory to the right and topple yet another debt-laden eurozone government.
The rain-sodden general elections in the eurozone's fourth largest economy looked set to punish the ruling Socialists and could sweep the right to its biggest win since the end of dictatorship in 1975.
"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 in a bid to tackle a jobless rate of 21.5 percent and reassure the markets.
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 the 36-million-strong electorate 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.
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.
© 2011 AFP