MADRID Voter anger over Spain's economic plight is certain to sweep the center-right People's Party to an election victory on Sunday, giving it a resounding mandate to slash public spending and try to rescue the country from the euro zone crisis.
The Socialists, in power for seven years, are set to become the latest political victims of Europe's economic woes as voters punish them for failing to heal the sickly economy and fix the worst unemployment rate in the European Union.
Spain's neighbors on the so-called periphery of the euro area, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Portugal, have all replaced their leaders as the crisis in the single currency zone deepens.
The People's Party, led by Mariano Rajoy, has a runaway 17 point lead over Socialist Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba and is heading for the widest win for a conservative party since Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s after the General Francisco Franco dictatorship.
With Spain sliding into an economic recession, unemployment dominated the campaign along with fear that the country will succumb to Europe's debt crisis, which has already pushed the government's borrowing costs dangerously high.
"I don't know if Rajoy will be able to fix things, it's so messed up, but things cannot get any worse for me. If it weren't for my parents helping me out, I'd be a bum on the street right now, it's humiliating," said out-of-work truck-driver Fernando Garcia, 40, who plans to vote for the People's Party, or PP.
One out of five Spanish workers is jobless. In 1.4 million households no one has a formal job. And a million families are at risk of eviction after falling behind on house payments, according to the Bank Users Association consumer group.
Rajoy, 56, a cautious and unsmiling former property registrar and interior minister is not well-loved by Spaniards.
But he is seen as a better steward for the economy than Rubalcaba, 60, an incisive former chemistry professor with hypnotic hand gestures who is also an ex-interior minister.
"There's a perception the Socialists mismanaged the economy, reflected in the 22 percent unemployment rate, and there's a perception that a change will make things better," said Antonio Barroso, analyst with Eurasia Group consulting firm.
After the election, Rajoy will be under intense pressure to quickly name a heavyweight economy minister with an international profile and immediately take fresh measures to keep the deficit under control.
Since May, young Spaniards in the "Indignados" (Indignant) movement have demonstrated in public squares against both the main parties, saying their policies benefit the wealthy and the status quo at a time of growing poverty and need.
The Indignados had huge impact abroad and inspired global Occupy Wall Street protests, but pollsters say they did not gain sufficient momentum to significantly affect Sunday's outcome.
Rajoy is dismissive of the Indignados and of Spain's weak labor unions, calculating protests will not be big enough to block aggressive reforms such as making it easier for companies to hire and fire, tax cuts for businesses and cutting spending on development aid, public broadcasters and more.
He will have a powerful mandate, with his party controlling well over the 176 seats needed for a majority in the lower house, most of Spain's 17 autonomous regions and most of its city halls including all major cities.
Spaniards, unlike the Greeks whose anti-austerity protests provoked a political crisis, seem willing to tighten their belts after their borrowing and building binge in the early 2000s left the landscape dotted with unused airports and empty high-rises.
"We are inheriting a very difficult situation and we have to tell people that. If we tell the truth and diagnose things properly we can start to take measures," Rajoy told Antena 3 television in an interview last week.
Rajoy says he can meet an ambitious target, pledged to the European Union, to cut Spain's public deficit to 4.4 percent of economic output next year without hurting social programs.
He believes spending cuts will stimulate rather than cripple investment because restored confidence will kick-start bank lending. But with a recession looming less than two years after the last one, he is unlikely to create jobs in the short term.
Garcia, the jobless truck driver, whose benefits run out in January, is looking for immediate action.
"If we don't have quick results we're all going to be on the streets at each other's throats in a year," said Garcia, smoking outside an employment office. "If the water is coming in, you can't sit down and study things, you've got to start bailing."
Most Spaniards define themselves as leftists, which puts a firm ceiling on votes for the PP even though Rajoy has moved the party toward the center compared with conservative Jose Maria Aznar, PP prime minister from 1996-2004.
Nervous of spooking voters Rajoy avoided defining where he will cut spending and focused on hammering the Socialists for the "unbearable and unacceptable" unemployment rate.
His advisers designed a cautious campaign, fearing Rajoy could ruin his shot at an absolute majority if he detailed aggressive cost cuts the way British Prime Minister David Cameron did ahead of elections last year.
Outgoing Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is very unpopular as voters give him no credit for tough measures that shielded the country from bond market attacks.
When Zapatero decided earlier this year not to run again and to bring forward elections to November, instead of March 2012, the Socialists saw respected political veteran Rubalcaba as their only hope to prevent the PP from controlling Parliament.
Rubalcaba jabbed at Rajoy's "valium campaign" and warned PP policies will damage hospitals and schools, but since he had been Zapatero's interior minister for years, his credibility on jobs was minimal.
He was unable to win points for his central role in moving the violence-plagued Basque region closer to peace even after separatist group ETA in October called an end to its four-decade armed struggle.
By the end of his campaign Rubalcaba sounded defeatist. In the only debate between the two candidates he came across as an opposition leader as he repeatedly quizzed Rajoy about the measures he would take when in power.
(Editing by Tracy Rucinski and Angus MacSwan)