REPORTING FROM LONDON — Spain's ruling Socialists were ousted from power in elections Sunday as Europe's debt crisis continued to cause political upheaval across the continent.
With 98% of the votes counted, the Popular Party had won 186 seats, a majority in the 350-member lower chamber of parliament, assuring that the center-right group will return to power for the first time since 2004.
The conservatives won roughly 45% of the votes and the Socialists took 29%, according to official election results, the news service reported.
The conservative party appeared to have benefited from widespread anger over the perilous state of the economy in Spain, where unemployment exceeds 21% and borrowing costs for the government have hit painfully high levels because of the debt crisis.
The presumptive new prime minister, Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy, should have the parliamentary majority needed to pass further austerity measures to rein in public spending and to liberalize Spain's labor laws.
Rajoy, 56, will have to act fast to placate markets that have been demonstrating their lack of faith in the Spanish economy by making it increasingly expensive for Madrid to raise money to pay its bills. Last week, the interest rate on Spanish government bonds hovered dangerously close to the level at which Greece, Ireland and Portugal were forced to turn to their European neighbors and the International Monetary Fund for emergency loans.
But Spain, with the fourth-largest economy in the 17-nation Eurozone, is considered too big to bail out, raising worries over what Europe's leaders can do to keep the debt crisis from spinning completely out of control.
The Socialist government put a liberal stamp on social policy, with, for example, the legalization of same-sex marriage. But the deteriorating economic situation caused the party's standing to plummet so badly that outgoing Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero stepped aside as the Socialists' candidate for prime minister in Sunday's election.
In Rajoy, Spain would have a leader who even allies acknowledge is low-key and bland and who lost the last two elections. But his supporters say he is good at building consensus.
"I am ready for whatever Spaniards may want," he said after casting his ballot Sunday.
-- Henry Chu
Photo: Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party, the likely next prime minister of Spain, waves as he celebrates his party's election victory in Madrid on Sunday. Credit: Jasper Juinen / Getty Images.