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Exit poll: Spanish opposition conservatives score big win in election dominated by eco
MADRID (AP) ' An exit poll says Spanish opposition conservatives have scored a landslide win in general elections dominated by a staggering unemployment rate and Europe's debt crisis.
The survey by Spain's state-run television said the Popular Party led by Mariano Rajoy has easily defeated the ruling Socialists and has won an absolute majority in parliament. The government is saddled by a stagnant economy and a 21.5 percent jobless rate.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
MADRID (AP) ' Spaniards hit by the highest unemployment rate in the eurozone voted Sunday in an election expected to give a landslide victory to opposition conservatives who have vowed to prevent the zone's fourth-largest economy from imploding but have offered scant details on how they will do so.
The vote came as Europe is engulfed in a debt crisis that is causing financial havoc across the globe, and polls showed that Spain was poised to become the third European country in as many weeks to throw out its governing party, following Greece and Italy.
Ireland and Portugal ' which like Greece received huge bailouts to avoid default ' have also seen their governments change hands because of the crisis.
Spanish opposition leader Mariano Rajoy and his Popular Party were expected to win control of Parliament and oust the ruling Socialists but Rajoy has said little ' other than lower taxes on small- and medium-size companies ' on what his party would do to fight Spain's 21.5 percent jobless rate and precisely what kind of austerity measures he would enact.
A win for Rajoy, 56, would bring the conservatives back to power after nearly eight years of rule by Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
On social policy, Zapatero put a patently liberal stamp on traditionally Catholic Spain by legalizing gay marriage and ushering in other northern European-style reforms. But on economic matters he has been widely criticized as first denying, then reacting late and erratically, to Spain's slice of the global financial crisis and the implosion of a real estate bubble that had fueled Spanish GDP growth robustly for nearly a decade.
Zapatero slumped so badly in popularity that he decided not to run for a new term, and former Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba ' a veteran figure and powerful force within the party ' emerged as the candidate to succeed him. The outgoing premier was jeered and cheered by people on the street outside his polling station in Madrid as he left in his motorcade after voting.
Unlike Italy and Greece, which recently replaced their elected governments with technocrats with financial expertise in an attempt to better cope with the euro crisis, Spain will end up with a career politician no matter who wins.
"I am ready for whatever Spaniards may want," said Rajoy after casting his vote Sunday.
Rubalcaba, 60, urged his supporters not to let a low turnout reduce his Socialist party's chances. "The next four years are going to be very important for our future," he said. "The big decisions that have to be taken must be made by citizens, so it's important to vote," he said.
But poor weather caused some polling stations to open late, and a station in the country's south had to be relocated because of flooding, said election office spokesman Felix Monteira. He also said voter turnout was running lower than during Spain's 2008 election.
Voters are casting ballots to elect 350 members of the lower house of Parliament and 208 senators.
In Barcelona, Juan Sanchez said he had voted for Rajoy's party because unemployment fell while it was in power from 1996 to 2004, while it has skyrocketed to nearly 5 million people under Zapatero.
"Hundreds of small and big businesses have closed down," Sanchez said.
But Spain's socialists fear that the Popular Party will cut spending so deeply that it will hit Spain's social welfare system hard and hamper chances for economic recovery.
"I voted for the Socialists because I am sure that if the Popular Party comes to power it is going to begin to cut everything," said civil servant Diana Bachiller after voting.
Spain has the eurozone's fourth largest economy, and experts say it is too big to be bailed out. In a sign of how dire the nation's finances have become, the interest rate on bonds sold by Spain last week hit almost 7 percent, a level seen as unsustainable. Greece, Portugal and Ireland were all forced into bailouts after their rates went beyond that rate.
The winner of Sunday's election will almost certainly be forced to implement additional unpopular austerity measures started during Zapatero's tenure.
Maria Angeles Redondo, a doctor in Madrid, said she had voted for the Popular Party but doubted any Spanish politicians will be able to solve the nation's problems soon.
"I am not sure if a change of government is really going to usher in the improvements we want and need," she said.
Zapatero over the last year cut civil servants' wages, froze pensions and passed legislation making it easier for companies to hire and fire workers.
The winner of Sunday's election will be forced to lower Spain's budget deficit, boost investor confidence and try to improve growth of a listless economy by a delicate balancing act of cutting spending or raising taxes just enough so the economy does not plunge into another recession.
Rajoy has been vague about his plans for the economy, but his platform included plans for business tax cuts to encourage hiring and lower unemployment.
Rajoy also said he would meet Spain's commitments to the European Union on deficit reduction, although with economic growth at a standstill hardly anybody thinks the current government's goal of cutting it to 6.0 percent of GDP this year from 9.2 in 2010 is achievable.
Alan Clendenning and Daniel Woolls contributed to this report.