MADRID — The People's Party and its leader, Mariano Rajoy, unseated the governing Socialist Party on Sunday in a resounding victory for the conservative leader who has promised to tackle an economic crisis that is threatening to bankrupt Spain.
"Forty-six million Spaniards are going to wage a battle against the [economic] crisis," he told cheering supporters from a balcony outside his party's headquarters in Madrid.
Based on nearly complete returns, state broadcaster RTVE predicted that the conservatives will take at least 181 seats in parliament, while the Socialists will keep no more than 119. That would give the conservatives an absolute majority and allow them to form a government and pass legislation without making concessions to the other parties.
For months, polls have predicted a landslide for the center-right party because of the socialists' mismanagement of an economic crisis that has boosted unemployment from around 8 percent during the previous elections in 2008 to the current 23 percent.
"According to our data and other polls, the [People's Party] has won the elections with a large majority," said the party's campaign manager, Ana Mato. "Tomorrow begins a new stage, in which our goal is to defeat the [economic] crisis and unemployment."
The Socialists' collapse benefited smaller parties like the United Left, which is expected to win about 11 seats, up from just two in the last election, and the Catalan nationalist party, Convergence and Union, which is predicted to win about 15 seats, five more than in 2008.
Mr. Rajoy, 56, had lost the previous two elections in 2004 and 2008 to outgoing Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The Spanish leader decided not to run for re-election this year, handing the candidacy to Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, 60.
While he polled higher on a personal level than Mr. Rajoy, Mr. Rubalcaba failed to distance himself from the missteps of his government. Mr. Rajoy was able to coast into office without explaining clearly to voters what he intends to do to reverse Spain's economic slide.
The People's Party's victory marks the fifth time this year that Europeans have defeated governments held responsible for the financial crisis. Voters tossed out ruling parties in Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Italy.
Many hope that Mr. Rajoy will push forward the fiscal and labor reforms he has hinted at to curb national and regional deficits. Without providing many details, Mr. Rajoy has pledged to impose more spending cuts and overhaul the economy.
Since Italy's collapse last week, analysts have been speculating whether Spain's economy, the fourth-largest among the 17 nations that use the euro currency, will need a financial bailout from the European Union. Spain's 10-year bond yield has been inching close to the 7 percent benchmark that sparked bailouts in Ireland, Greece and Portugal.
While Spain's debt-to-GDP ratio is around half of Italy's and lower than the eurozone average, its economy is shrinking toward recession. It is suffering from a burst construction bubble. The savings-bank sector is in shambles. There are almost 5 million jobless, and Madrid will not likely meet its 2011 budget-deficit target of 6 percent of gross domestic product. Last year, Spain's deficit was 9.2 percent of GDP.
Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union and more than double the eurozone average of 10.2 percent, according to Eurostat, the EU statistical agency. The jobless rate for young Spaniards is double the national average. This has led to many protests from the thousands of young people who are calling for a drastic economic and political reform.
"The political class is out of touch with reality," said Mariano Caballero, 45, a high school history teacher in Madrid. "Both parties have proposed reforms that have not worked."
With the People's Party is likely to impose spending cuts, the youth movement is preparing further protests. On Thursday night, thousands of teachers and students marched in Madrid and other cities in protest against cuts in public education.