Spain Votes; Conservatives Poised for Victory

Posted November 20th, 2011 at 10:55 am (UTC-5)
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Spaniards are voting Sunday in parliamentary elections dominated by the country's economic crisis, and which are expected to sweep the opposition conservatives into power after nearly eight years of Socialist rule.

Pre-election polls say Mariano Rajoy's center-right Popular Party could win its largest victory ever – likely an absolute majority – in Spain's 350-member parliament.

Rajoy is running against Socialist candidate Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero decided not to seek a third term after his approval ratings sank.

The election comes as Spain fights to avoid slipping back into recession for the second time in two years. Unemployment stands at 21.5 percent – the highest rate in 15 years.

Spain's economic growth rate ground to a halt in the third quarter, after rising just 0.2 percent during the previous three months. The country also is being dragged down by mounting debt and a bleak economic outlook.

Voters are angry with the Socialists for failing to act swiftly to prevent the slide in the eurozone's fourth-largest economy and for enacting austerity measures that have cut wages, benefits and jobs.

An outright victory would hand Rajoy a mandate to enforce the deep cuts seen as necessary to balance Spain's books and steer the country from financial insolvency.

But if the Popular Party leader wins, he has a difficult balancing act ahead, needing to lower the deficit while boosting investor confidence without raising taxes or cutting spending so much that it drags the economy into another recession.

Along with Italy, Spain is considered too big a country to bail out the same way the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have propped up Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

Mr. Zapatero's government liberalized the traditionally Roman Catholic country by introducing reforms such as gay marriage. But he is seen as having been slow to react to Spain's financial crisis and the bursting housing bubble.