MADRID — An exit poll said Spain's opposition conservatives scored a landslide win to oust the ruling Socialists in general elections Sunday that were dominated by a staggering unemployment rate and Spain's central role in Europe's debt crisis.
If confirmed the win would mean that a third eurozone country in as many weeks, after Greece and Italy, which went with unelected technocrats, has dumped its government as part of a crisis that is causing financial havoc around the world. Ireland and Portugal — which like Greece received huge bailouts to avoid default — have also seen their governments change hands because of the crisis.
Spain's Popular Party led by Mariano Rajoy has won an absolute majority in parliament, according to the TNS-Demoscopia survey by state-run television, obtaining between 181 and 185 seats, compared to 154 in the last legislature. A majority in the 350-seat lower chamber is 176.
"The political change led by Mariano Rajoy has won tonight in Spain," PP campaign manager Ana Mato said, although she stopped short of declaring outright victory.
Jubilant, cheering supporters waving red-and-yellow Spanish flags and blue-and-white party ones started to gather outside PP headquarters in downtown Madrid. One of them, David Cordero, said he was happy with the prospect of change so as to create jobs and protect social services like state-paid health care and education.
"This is what this country needs right now," he said.
The Socialists, saddled by a stagnant economy and a 21.5 percent jobless rate, plummeted from 169 seats to between 115 and 119 seats, according to the poll, which gave no margin of error.
The conservatives won 43.5 percent of the votes and the Socialists took 30 percent, the poll said. In the last election in 2008, the latter won by about 4 points.
The numbers suggest Spanish voters have shifted clearly to the right as they confront their worst economic crisis in decades and choose new leaders to pull them out of it.
As part of that mess, the country is also at the forefront of Europe's sovereign debt crisis, with the Spanish government's borrowing costs rising last week to levels near where other eurozone countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal had to request huge bailouts from the European Union and the IMF.
Pre-election polls had pointed to a crushing win for the conservatives, with Spanish voters expected to punish the Socialists for a jobless rate that the government itself has said will take years to chip back down to even the upper teens.
If Rajoy does win, it will come after two election bid losses — in 2004 and 2008 — and present him with the daunting challenge of resurrecting an economy that posted no growth in the third quarter of this year and meet Spanish commitments to the EU on deficit-reduction with tax rises or spending cuts without jeopardizing prospects for desperately needed economic expansion.
In its first official reaction, Socialist party spokeswoman Elena Valenciano said her party was awaiting official results but she seemed resigned to a Socialist defeat.
She said turnout was about 70 percent, compared to 74 percent in 2008.