MADRID Spain's center-right opposition stormed to a crushing election victory Sunday as voters punished the outgoing Socialist government for the worst economic crisis in generations.
The People's Party, led by former Interior Minister Mariano Rajoy, won an absolute majority in parliament and is expected to push through drastic measures to try to prevent Spain being sucked deeper into a debt storm threatening the whole euro zone.
Voters vented their rage on the Socialists, who led the country from boom to bust in seven years in charge. With 5 million people out of work, the European Union's highest jobless rate, Spain is heading into its second recession in four years.
Spaniards, who voted in pouring rain Sunday, were the fifth European nation to throw out their leaders because of the spreading euro zone crisis, following Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Italy.
The PP won the biggest majority for any party in three decades, taking 186 seats in the 350-seat lower house, according to official results with 98 percent of the vote counted.
The Socialists slumped to 111 seats from 169 in the outgoing parliament, their worst showing in 30 years.
Rajoy's bitter medicine for the economy will probably make things worse before they get better. But he has said Spaniards are prepared for the painful austerity that is needed to reduce a swollen public deficit threatening to push the euro zone's fourth economy toward a perilous bail-out.
"I ask you all to keep helping me. Difficult times are coming," Rajoy, 56, told ecstatic supporters in his victory speech at PP headquarters.
"Spain's voice must be respected again in Brussels and Frankfurt... We will stop being part of the problem and will be part of the solution."
Most Spaniards are resigned to deep spending cuts and see Rajoy as a better steward for the economy than the discredited Socialists, who they blame for failing to act swiftly enough to head off the crisis and then belatedly imposing biting austerity measures that slashed wages, benefits and jobs.
"Being a civil servant I'm not optimistic," said Jose Vazquez, 45.
"We can choose the sauce they will cook us in, but we're still going to be cooked."
Many leftist voters are fearful Rajoy will destroy Spain's treasured public health and education systems, but they were so angry at the Socialists that they fled to smaller parties such as the former communist United Left, which made huge gains.
The PP, formed from other rightist parties in the 1980s after Spain returned to democracy at the end of the Franco dictatorship, won their biggest majority ever.
The Socialists lost badly even in their traditional strongholds such as Andalucia, the olive-growing region in Spain's sunny south. In some parts of rural southern Spain more than four out of 10 workers are jobless.
"Something's got to change here in Spain, with 5 million people on the dole, this can't go on," said Juan Antonio Fernandez, 60, a jobless Madrid construction worker who switched to the PP from the Socialists. "People like us just want to work."
Spain's borrowing costs are at their highest since the euro zone was formed and yields on 10-year bonds soared last week to close to 7 percent, a level that forced other countries such as Portugal and Greece to seek international bail-outs.
Rajoy will not be sworn in until around December 20, which could prove an agonizing transition if volatile markets push Spain's borrowing costs even higher because of uncertainty.
Closing his campaign Friday Rajoy pleaded with investors to give him time to act, and could try to agree immediate measures with the outgoing government.
ESCALATING DEBT CRISIS
But a resolution may well now be out of the hands of individual governments, whatever action they take, with the escalating euro zone crisis now spreading under its own momentum in the absence of a united European response.
"Mr. Rajoy is coming to power when the euro zone's very existence is in question. Spain is now a test case of the measures needed to restore market confidence and improve creditworthiness," said Nicholas Spiro, head of Spiro Sovereign Strategy.
Socialist candidate Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba conceded defeat after a campaign where he had given up hope of winning but vainly tried to block the PP from taking complete control of parliament.
He failed to persuade voters that he was any different from his long-time boss, deeply unpopular outgoing Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
When the Socialists took power in 2004 Spain was riding a construction boom fueled by cheap interest rates, infrastructure projects and foreign demand for vacation homes on the country's warm coastlines.
Droves of young men dropped out of high school to take building jobs and bought flashy BMWs with their inflated wages.
But the government, consumers and companies were engulfed in debt when the building sector collapsed in 2007, leaving the landscape dotted with vacant housing developments, empty airports and underused highways.
In 1.4 million Spanish households no one has a formal job and bank foreclosures are rising. Close to half of young people are without work, and many of the rest are in contract jobs with low pay and no benefits.
Facing a bleak future, tens of thousands of young Spaniards took to the streets earlier this year in the "Indignados" (or Indignant) movement, calling for complete political change and inspiring the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Like many Spaniards, Pablo Cortes, 27, who can only find occasional restaurant work despite his degree in architecture, saw no reason for optimism from the result.
"Does anyone really believe the PP is going to solve this? How, with more austerity for the have-nots and favors for the rich?" he asked bitterly.
(Additional reporting by Nigel Davies, Martin Roberts and Carlos Ruano in Madrid; Editing by Barry Moody and Angus MacSwan)