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Spain election dominated by its economic woes

Spain's Socialist candidate Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, right, and his wife Pilar Goya, center, vote during the Spanish general elections in Madrid on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011. Spain's Socialist candidate Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, right, and his wife Pilar Goya, center, vote during the Spanish general elections in Madrid on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011. (AP Photo/Arturo Rodriguez)
By Harold Heckle
Associated Press / November 20, 2011

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MADRID—Spain held a national election on Sunday, and it was expected to become the third eurozone country in as many weeks to throw out its governing party in an attempt to dig itself out of an economic crisis.

Spanish opposition leader Mariano Rajoy and his conservative Popular Party were expected to win control of Parliament in a landslide, even though Rajoy has said little about what his party would do to fight Spain's sky-high unemployment, painful austerity measures and piles of debt.

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, he 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 Zapatero 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.

Unlike Italy and Greece, which recently replaced their elected governments with bureaucrats in an attempt to better cope with the euro crisis, Spain will stick with an elected government.

"I am ready for whatever Spaniards may want," said Rajoy after casting his vote Sunday.

Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, Rajoy's Socialist opponent, urged his supporters not to let a low turnout reduce his 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 was causing some polling stations to open late, and a station in the country's south had to be relocated because of flooding, election office spokesman Felix Monteira said. The Interior Ministry also said voter turnout appeared to running lower than during Spain's 2008 election.

Voters are casting ballots to elect 350 members of Parliament and 208 senators.

In Barcelona, Spaniard Juan Sanchez in Barcelona said he had voted for Rajoy's party because when it was last in power from 1996 to 2004 unemployment had fallen, whereas under the Socialists that figure had risen to five million.

"Hundreds of small and big businesses have closed down," Sanchez said.

In Madrid, civil servant Diana Bachiller said: "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."

Almost two years of recession have left Spain with a euro-zone high 21.5 percent unemployment rate and a bloated budget deficit. The country's key borrowing rate rose above 6 percent for five consecutive days last week, just one percent below a rate considered unsustainable.

The winner of Sunday's election will have little room for maneuver and will almost certainly need to continue implementing austerity measures begun by the outgoing government.

The increasing severity of the recession forced Zapatero to cut civil servants' wages, freeze pensions and, with a hard-bargained agreement of the trade unions, pass legislation making it easier for companies to hire and fire workers.

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