MADRID — Spain's opposition conservatives headed for a crushing win to oust the 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 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.
With 64 percent of the votes counted, Spain's Popular Party led by Mariano Rajoy has won 187 seats, compared to 110 for the ruling Socialists in the 350-seat lower chamber of Parliament, the main one, the Interior Ministry website said. An absolute majority is 176.
In the last legislature the PP had 154 seats to 169 for the Socialists of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who was not seeking a third term in office. His party is saddled with a stagnant economy with grim prospects for years to come, and a 21.5 percent jobless rate.
"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 as pop music boomed over loudspeakers. 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 conservatives won roughly 44 percent of the votes and the Socialists took 29 percent, the Interior Ministry numbers 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.
Turnout was 71.5 percent, compared to 73.4 in 2008.