REPORTING FROM LONDON — Spaniards went to the polls Sunday in a closely watched election likely to result in a major rout of the ruling Socialists because of the party's handling of the country's stumbling economy.
Voters cast their ballots against the backdrop of Europe's spiraling debt crisis, which now threatens to swallow up Spain, the fourth-largest economy in the 17-nation Eurozone. With one out of five workers jobless and government belt-tightening measures taking their toll, many Spaniards are eager for a change of leadership.
That means the expected victory of the Popular Party, set to regain power for the first time since 2004 with a potential parliamentary majority larger than any it has enjoyed in the past. The party's leader and Spain's probable new prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, is a colorless, quiet politician who unsuccessfully ran in the last two elections but this time has coasted on public anger toward the Socialists, and has refrained from making any specific campaign promises.
Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, the Socialist candidate for premier, encouraged party stalwarts to turn out at the polls. "The next four years are going to be very important for our future," he said Sunday. "The big decisions that have to be taken must be made by citizens, so it's important to vote."
If the Socialists lose, Spain would become the sixth Eurozone nation to suffer a fall of government or change of leader within the last year because of the European debt crisis.
Whichever party wins Sunday will need to take swift action to reassure the global investors who have pushed up Madrid's borrowing costs to near-intolerable levels in recent days during a widespread sell-off of European government debt.
Economists also say Spain must rein in government spending and restructure its economy, particularly its labor market, to become competitive again. The country's economy has had a fitful recovery from the global recession, essentially flat-lining in recent months and now skating perilously close to another downturn.
— Henry Chu
Photo: Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is heckled and cheered as he gets into a car after voting Sunday in Madrid. Credit: Emilio Naranjo / EPA