Voters to claim government's scalp in Spain

3rd November 2011, Comments 0 comments

Spaniards are all but certain to claim the Socialist government's scalp in November 20 general elections, exacting revenge for soaring joblessness and stinging welfare cuts.

Officially, the political campaign starts Friday.

But unofficially, most people agree the fight is already over: the Socialists will be removed after eight years in power and the conservative Popular Party will take their place.

A poll published Sunday in the right-leaning daily El Mundo showed the Popular Party with 47.7-percent support compared to the Socialists' 31.0 percent.

A survey in El Pais, the leading centre-left daily, gave the Popular Party 45.3 percent to the Socialists' 30.3 percent.

Either result would likely give the Popular Party, led by 56-year-old Mariano Rajoy, an absolute majority of the 350 members of parliament and 208 senators.

It does not come as a surprise.

Official figures show Spain's unemployment rate at the end of September hit a 15-year record of 21.52 percent, the highest in the industrialised world. Among 16-24 year olds, the rate was 45.8 percent.

The economy likely stalled with zero growth in the third quarter, according to the Bank of Spain.

At the same time, regional governments are laying off staff and cutting services including healthcare.

Resentment over the crisis, and in particular the perception that ordinary people are suffering in the place of bankers and big corporations, has boiled over into a national protest movement, known as the indignants.

The activists have called for nationwide protest on November 13 and another, on the eve of the vote, in Madrid's central square Puerta del Sol, birthplace of the movement.

"The economic crisis is ruling the electoral campaign," said Fernando Vallespin, political science professor at Madrid's Autonomous University.

"Everyone knows we are entering into a culture of austerity."

It all makes victory unlikely for the Socialists' Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, who is leading his party's fight after Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero decided to bow out after two four-year terms.

Rubalcaba, 60, is trying to appeal to the nearly 36 million potential voters by calling for more restraint on state spending and higher taxes on the richest.

But Rajoy this week warned: "Those who created the problem cannot be the solution to the problem.

"Our main goal, our obsession, is employment," he said while unveiling his platform, pointing to the nearly five million unemployed in Spain.

Under the slogan "What Spain Needs", Rajoy is calling for a slimmed down bureaucracy to cut costs and advocating tax breaks for companies and savers to stimulate the economy.

His Popular Party has already made huge strides, crushing the Socialists in local and regional polls in May.

In private, government officials say Zapatero realized he was making a political sacrifice when he introduced unpopular measures to slash the bloated deficit and calm market fears of a debt default.

But they say the prime minister saw no alternative.

The Spanish economy slumped into recession during the second half of 2008 as the global financial meltdown compounded the collapse of a property bubble, which threw millions out of work.

Spain has promised to reduce its annual public deficit from the equivalent of 9.3 percent of gross domestic product last year to 6.0 percent of GDP this year, 4.4 percent in 2012 and 3.0 percent in 2013.

Since last year, the government has been scrambling to find the money to do so.

This year it completed a restructuring of the financial sector by forcing banks to merge and boost their capital, and it joined with the opposition to enshrine balanced budgets in the constitution.

Last year, it raised sales taxes, froze old-age pensions, increased the retirement age, cut public workers' wages by five percent, and made it slightly less costly for firms to hire and fire.

But the battle is far from won.

The three major credit rating agencies, Moody's Investors Service, Standard & Poor's and Fitch Rating, all downgraded Spain's sovereign debt last month. They warned that high public and private debt levels coupled with the weak economy made the country especially vulnerable to the eurozone debt crisis.

© 2011 AFP

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