Exit polls: Center-right People's Party wins Spain election

Voters vent rage on ruling Socialists for worst economic crisis in generations; tough austerity measures expected; poll shows PP winning more than 180 of 350 seats in lower house.

Spain Election 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Spain Election 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
MADRID - The opposition People's Party won a crushing victory in Sunday's Spanish election, a TV exit poll said, as voters vented their rage on the ruling Socialists for the worst economic crisis in generations.
The poll by public broadcaster RTVE predicted the center-right PP would win an absolute majority of 181 to 185 seats in the 350-seat lower house with 43.5 per cent of the votes. The Socialists would take 115-119 seats, in their worst performance ever, it said.
In a rainy day across the country, people voted in a grim mood against a background of soaring unemployment, cuts in public spending and a debt crisis that has put Spain in the front line of the euro zone's fight for survival.
Further hardship lies ahead, with PP leader Mariano Rajoy set to bring in even harsher austerity measures to appease financial markets.
"We can choose the sauce they will cook us in, but we're still going to be cooked," said civil servant Jose Vasquez, 45, who was among the early voters in the capital Madrid.
The Socialists under Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero have led Spain from boom to bust in seven years in the euro zone's fourth-largest economy.
Voters punished them for failing to act swiftly to prevent the slide in Spain's fortunes and then belatedly bringing in austerity measures that have slashed wages, benefits and jobs.
Spaniards now seem resigned to further cuts, including in health and education, in the midst of the wider European debt crisis that had already toppled the governments of Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Italy, and pushed Spain's borrowing costs to critical levels.
Spain's bleak economic outlook hung over the election campaign. One in five Spanish workers are without a job and its economy is threatening to slip into recession next year for the second time in three years.
"Something's got to change here in Spain, with 5 million people on the dole, this can't go on. People like us just want to work." Juan Antonio Fernandez, 60, an unemployed construction worker, said as he voted in rain-swept Madrid.
The absolute majority means that Rajoy, who led his party in two previous failed election campaigns, has a clear mandate to enforce the deep and painful cuts seen as vital to balance Spain's books.
"I'm prepared to do what Spaniards want," Rajoy said after he voted in the wealthy Madrid neighborhood of Aravaca.
The 56-year-old will not be sworn in until December but he is likely to swiftly lay out his plans during the government handover to reassure fraught markets.
Underlining the fragile situation, Spain's borrowing costs hit euro-era highs during the election campaign, almost reaching the 7 percent level at which other peripheral nations like Ireland and Greece sought international bail-outs. Growth has stalled.
"If we had not had an election in Spain, the markets would have changed the government as they did in Greece and Italy," said voter Antonio Diaz, 38, a local government administrator.
"The first problems the new government is going to confront are unemployment and the markets -- who are what governs us. It's going to be very complicated to solve Spain's problems."
Zapatero decided against running for a third term as his approval ratings sank. The Socialists chose veteran politician Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba as their leader for the campaign, but he suffered because of his association with Zapatero.
The left-wing party took power in a 2004 election held three days after an Islamist attack on Madrid commuter trains which killed 191 people. Conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar wrongly blamed blamed Basque separatist group ETA, prompting a voter backlash. Rajoy was the unsuccessful PP candidate.
Sunday's election took place on the 36th anniversary of the death of dictator General Francisco Franco, who had ruled Spain since the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War.
Following the restoration of democracy, Spain joined the European Union in 1986 and the euro in 1999, enjoying years of prosperity and a real estate boom driven by cheap credit.
When the property market crashed in 2007 the government, companies and consumers found themselves over their heads in debt.
"The best social policy is to create jobs," said Luis Escobar, a 50-year-old hotel worker who cast his vote for the PP.
"The guys in power haven't done anything so if you want things to change you have to do something," he said.
The crisis has hit some regions, notably southern Andalucia, heartland of Spain's tourist industry, worse than others.
In the Basque Country, people voted for the first time in years without the threat of violence, after the separatist guerrilla group ETA announced last month that it was giving up its armed struggle.
The traditionally prosperous northeastern region has been relatively unscathed by the economic storm and most voters were expected to back pro-independence parties.