REPORTING FROM LONDON — Spain's ruling Socialists appeared likely to be ousted from power in elections Sunday, an exit poll showed, as Europe's debt crisis continued to cause political upheaval across the continent.
The Popular Party was on track to win a majority of seats in parliament, which would return the center-right group to power for the first time since 2004, according to the TNS-Demoscopia survey by Spain's state television, as reported by the Associated Press.
The conservative party appeared to have benefited from widespread anger over the parlous state of the economy in Spain, where unemployment exceeds 21% and borrowing costs for Madrid have hit painfully high levels because of the debt crisis.
The presumptive new prime minister, Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy, would see his faction control between 181 and 185 seats in the 350-member lower chamber of parliament, according to the survey. That would give him a majority needed to pass further austerity measures to rein in public spending and to liberalize Spain's labor laws.
Rajoy, 56, would 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.
[For the Record, 12:30 p.m. Nov. 20: A headline on an earlier version of this post incorrectly said the ruling party was heading for a win.]
— Henry Chu
Photo: Supporters of the conservative Popular Party wave flags of their party and country in Madrid on Sunday. Credit: Emilio Morenatti / Associated Press