MADRID — Spain's opposition conservatives swept commandingly into power and into the hot seat Sunday as voters enduring a 21.5 percent jobless rate and stagnant economy dumped the Socialists — the third time in as many weeks Europe's debt crisis has claimed a government.
As thousands of jubilant, cheering supporters waving red-and-yellow Spanish flags and blue-and-white party ones gathered outside Popular Party headquarters, their leader and future Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy thanked Spaniards for their support, then sounded a somber note of warning.
"It is no secret to anyone that we are going to rule in the most delicate circumstances Spain has faced in 30 years," he said. "For me, there will be no enemies but unemployment, the deficit, excessive debt, economic stagnation and anything else that keeps our country in these critical circumstances."
Other than promise tax cuts for small- and medium-size companies that make up more than 90 percent of all firms in Spain, the 56-year-old Rajoy has not specified how he will tackle Spain's unemployment nightmare.
Rajoy faces the towering task of restoring investor confidence and lowering Spain's soaring borrowing costs with deficit-reducing measures, while not dragging an already moribund economy into a double-dip recession. It only just climbed out of one last year that was prompted by the bursting of a real estate bubble.
With 97 percent of the votes from the election counted, the Popular Party won 186 seats compared to 154 in the last legislature. The Socialists plummeted from 169 to 110, their worst performance ever.
The PP thus won an absolute majority and resounding mandate from a deeply troubled electorate. It needed 176 votes for such a cushion in the lower chamber of Parliament, the main one.
Rajoy said he has not promised miracles and there will be none, but that the PP has shown in the past — it ruled from 1996 to 2004 and got Spain into the euro along the way — it gets things done. He appealed to Spaniards to join together and resurrect the economy.
"We stand before one of those crossroads that will determine the future of our country, not just in the next few years but for decades," said Rajoy, loser of the previous two elections.
Earlier, as he waited for Rajoy to speak, one supporter, 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 45 percent of the votes and the Socialists took 29 percent, according to official election results. In the last elections in 2008, the latter won by about 4 points.
The new numbers show Spanish voters have shifted decidedly 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 International Monetary Fund.
Besides the recent changes in which Greece and Italy replaced their governments with teams made up of technocrats, Ireland and Portugal — which also required huge bailouts to avert default — also saw their governments change hands.
Spanish Socialist party candidate Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba conceded defeat. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose popularity plummeted as the crisis deepened and enacted austerity measures that doomed him among supporters, did not seek a third term in office, or speak publicly Sunday night.
But Perez Rubalcaba said his party would fight to protect the welfare state from social spending cuts that Rajoy will almost certainly make to meet EU-mandated deficit reduction cuts his party has pledged to fulfill.
In the Senate, with 58 percent of the votes counted, it was 134 for the PP and 50 for the Socialists. Another few dozens seats in that chamber are not elected directly.
One surprise outside the economic realm is that a new pro-independence Basque coalition called Amaiur won seven seats and now outnumbers the region's traditionally strongest party, the moderate Basque Nationalist Party, with five.
This comes about a month after the armed Basque separatist group ETA declared an end to its armed campaign, saying it would seek independence through strictly peaceful means.