The first signs after polling stations closed across Spain at 8pm on Sunday night were that the center-right Popular Party (PP) was about to be propelled back into government after spending nearly eight years in opposition to Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
The RTVE state broadcaster's exit poll gave the PP 181-185 seats in Congress, with 176 enough for an absolute majority, suggesting that Mariano Rajoy was to get the chance to lead Spain after twice losing general elections to Zapatero. With 90 percent of the vote counted shortly before 11pm, the PP was expected to gain 186 seats, while the Socialists were on course for a mere 110, down from its winning total of 169 in 2008. "A new era is beginning in which the first objective is to overcome the crisis and unemployment," said PP campaign coordinator Ana Mato, a message that was repeated by Rajoy, when he read his victory speech at 10.40pm.
Rajoy promised to govern with "humility," avoiding "artificial division," and added that he was aware of the huge challenges ahead. he made a point of saying that his government would ensure that Spain was again respected in Frankfurt, where the European Central Bank is based, and among all the country's European Union partners.
Alfredo Pérez-Rubalcaba, the Socialist prime-ministerial candidate, has led his party to its worst electoral performance due to generalized disapproval of the government's handling of Spain's economic downturn. Rubalcaba said he had congratulated Rajoy, and called on the Socialists to hold a congress as soon as possible to clarify the leadership situation. At present, Zapatero is still the secretary general of the party.
The circumstances of the changeover in power could hardly be more daunting for a new government, with five million Spaniards out of work and a financial crisis which is forcing the Treasury to offer interest rates on its sovereign debt similar to those of Greece before that country turned to the IMF and EU for a bailout.
Spain's obligations to its euro-zone partners, as part of its program of returning to fiscal rectitude, will require a budget cutback of some 21 billion euros in 2012 in order to reduce the deficit to 4.4 percent of GDP.
Rajoy has been tight-lipped on what budget items he plans to cut back on, singling out state pensions as one area which will remain untouched. Instead, the conservative leader has stressed the competence in economic among his party's team, although he has dropped no hints about who will occupy the key ministerial posts.
Rubalcaba said he was in favor of taxing the very wealthy and the banks in order to help balance the budget, and suggested that the PP was deliberately concealing plans to slash great chunks out of Spain's welfare system. But the one face-to-face televised debate between the two candidates, Rajoy refused to be drawn into revealing cutback plans, sticking instead to the party's strategy of criticizing the Socialists' handling of the crisis, which has seen Zapatero's government introduce painful austerity measures of its own in the past two years.
Since its sweeping victory in local and regional elections in May, the conservative party had been making a conspicuous effort to contain its collective excitement over the prospect of returning to power nearly eight years after its surprise defeat at the hands of Zapatero's Socialist Party just days after the March 11, 2004 Madrid bomb attacks by Islamist terrorists, in which 191 people were killed.
The PP rules in 11 out of Spain's 17 regions and half of the country's town halls. In his final campaign interview for EL PAÍS, Rubalcaba said he was worried about the right holding "absolute power" in Spain, referring to other elements of society such as the predominantly rightwing print media as well as majorities in parliaments and council chambers.
Those local elections in May were marked by the eruption of the 15-M protest movement supported by thousands of mainly young people who coalesced around demands for an improvement in the quality of Spain's democracy, with more transparency within institutions, less corruption and changes to the electoral system. Although their demands were mainly focused on changes to the democratic system, Spain's high rate of youth unemployment of over 40 percent provided manpower for the camps that appeared in public squares across the country. 15-M activists have also become involved in campaigns to defend people facing eviction from their homes.
In the run-up to Sunday's elections, however, 15-M protests have been muted. On the other hand, last Thursday university students demonstrated in defense of the public system, allying their cause with that of teachers in the PP-ruled Madrid region who have been on strike in protest at cutbacks.