MADRID — Spain's center-right conservatives swept convincingly into power and into an economic hot seat Sunday as voters enduring 21.5 percent unemployment dumped the ruling Socialist government — the third time in as many weeks that Europe's debt crisis has toppled an administration.
The vote in the country with the eurozone's highest jobless rate and a center-stage spot in Europe's debt crisis saga came as the continent's troubles cause financial havoc across the globe. And the victory for Spain's Popular Party came just after financially troubled Greece and Italy saw their governments fall.
As thousands of cheering supporters waved red-and-yellow Spanish flags and blue-and-white Popular Party banners on a Madrid avenue outside party headquarters, future prime minister Mariano Rajoy called for Spaniards of all political stripes to work together to overcome the crisis — but sounded a somber note of warning for a country with an economy that has stalled.
"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."
But the 56-year old Rajoy gave no hints of how he will tackle Spain's unemployment nightmare — with a much higher rate for young adults. So far, Rajoy has only promised tax cuts for small- and medium-size companies that make up more than 90 percent of all firms in Spain.
Rajoy faces the towering task of restoring investor confidence and lowering Spain's soaring borrowing costs with deficit-reducing measures, while preventing an already moribund economy from heading into a double-dip recession. The country only just climbed out of one last year that was prompted by the bursting of a real estate bubble.
With 99 percent of the vote counted, the Popular Party had won 186 seats compared to 154 in the last legislature. The Socialists plummeted from 169 seats to 110, their worst performance ever.
It was a resounding mandate that gave the party, known as the PP, an absolute parliamentary majority — and far more seats than the 176 it needed for this cushion in the lower chamber of Parliament, Spain's most important.
Rajoy acknowledged he has no miraculous cures to solve Spain's economic troubles, but said the PP has shown in the past it gets things done, after ruling Spain from 1996 to 2004. These results included making Spain a founding member of the eurozone — an achievement the PP prides itself on.
"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, who lost in his two previous electoral bids to run Spain.
Voter David Cordero said he wants Rajoy 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 44.6 percent of the vote and the Socialists took 28.7 percent, according to official results. In the last elections in 2008, the Socialists won by about four percentage points.
The result showed a clear Spanish shift to the right as the nation confront its worst economic crisis in decades and is mired in Europe's sovereign debt crisis.
Just as the campaign was winding down last week, the government's borrowing costs rose 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 — saw their governments change hands.
Spanish Socialist party candidate Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba conceded defeat, saying that his party would fight to protect the welfare state from social spending cuts that Rajoy will almost certainly be forced to enact to meet EU-mandated deficit reduction cuts his party has pledged to fulfill.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose popularity plummeted as the crisis deepened and he enacted austerity measures that doomed him among supporters, did not seek a third term in office — and he didn't appear in public Sunday night.
In the Senate, with 58 percent of the votes counted, it was 134 seats for the PP and 50 for the Socialists. Several dozen more seats in that chamber are not elected directly. Rajoy is expected to take power in mid-December.
In a surprise, a new pro-independence Basque coalition called Amaiur won seven seats in Parliament and now outnumbers the Basque region's traditionally strongest party, the moderate Basque Nationalist Party, with five.
The victory for Amaiur came a month after the armed Basque separatist group ETA declared it would lay down its arms and seek independence through strictly peaceful means.