MADRID — Spanish voters headed to the polls Sunday in an election widely expected to deal historic losses to the ruling Socialists, punishing their leaders for high unemployment and the painful austerity measures that much of Europe has been forced to take.
The beneficiaries, Spain’s conservatives, have vowed to pursue the same policies, only more vigorously. Few voters Sunday were excited about their options, saying they saw little hope for the near future.
The country will become the latest to hand over the keys to leaders who promise to soothe markets by cutting, reforming and liberalizing their way to economic growth. Greece’s and Italy’s governments also toppled in recent weeks, and Portugal and Ireland switched leaders in the past year.
“It’s very clear how things have been going,” said Aguda Villamarin, 24, a public health contractor who was voting in a working-class area of Madrid. “Each party fights for their own people, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the people in the street.”
In Greece and Italy, voters didn’t get a say. In Spain, they will — but many voters say they see little alternative to the prevailing economic orthodoxy of the times, since Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has pursued initiatives long favored by Europe’s fiscal conservatives, not his own red-flag-waving Socialists. Many Madrid residents interviewed Sunday said they were voting for smaller parties that stood little chance of winning power.
In a country where youth unemployment tops 40 percent, young voters — who have the most time to benefit if the country gets back on track — are the least enthusiastic about their options. Many are turning away from democracy altogether, taking to the streets to express their frustration in the days leading up to Sunday’s vote.
“There’s a deficit of democracy,” said Nuria Sanchez, 31, a social researcher who has been involved in the protests.
“Our generation is the first generation that’s going to have a lower standard of living than our parents,” she said, echoing a view widely held among young Spaniards. “It’s a constant source of uncertainty, living day to day.”
Spain has implemented more economic reforms than Italy or Greece, where, until their recent leadership changes, European bureaucrats agonized about political intransigence. Zapatero surprised opponents and supporters alike when he proposed a constitutional amendment to limit the country’s ability to go into debt, long a pet policy of Europe’s fiscal conservatives.
Spain will still fall short of its economic targets this year, and unemployment has only gone up. But as the borrowing costs of less risky European countries such as France, Austria and the Netherlands have risen in recent days, analysts say there may be little that any individual country can do to stave off trouble. Spain’s borrowing costs soared to their highest since 1997 on Thursday, nearly 7 percent, prompting Zapatero to beg for European intervention to keep them lower.
The situation has many here swallowing hard and hoping for better times. Many young people have low expectations. Large-scale street protests in May that culminated in an encampment on Madrid’s main plaza were a precursor to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States. Protesters, most of them young, complained that they saw little difference between the two main political parties; they called themselves indignados, or “the outraged.”
“On economic policies, the difference between the [conservative] People’s Party and the Socialists is minimal,” said Raul Camargo, 33, a civil servant who has been involved in the protests as a member of a group called the Anti-Capitalists. “Their main concern is the demands of the international markets.”
Even the bitterest foes of the main political parties acknowledge the allure of the conservatives, who are perceived as having better bona fides to manage the economy. In Madrid, amateur political handicappers sit over churros and chocolate to debate the size of the conservatives’ coming majority, not whether they’ll get one, and the party’s blue banners flap from so many light poles that they seem to herald an arriving dignitary.
The man who is almost certain to be Spain’s next prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, 56, is a political survivor who even supporters describe as reliable rather than charismatic. He has spent much of the campaign ducking questions about his planned economic initiatives, in part because they will probably be unpopular, analysts say. He acknowledged this week that only pensions would be spared cuts — itself something that could rub young people the wrong way if it’s seen as favoring the old over the young.
His challenger, the veteran Socialist Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, 60, is widely seen as the more popular politician, but that will do little to carry him to victory.
A sweeping mandate will probably give Rajoy a bigger political buffer than the new technocratic leaders in Italy and Greece, who are governing only temporarily and do not have the imprimatur of the electorate, even as they pursue many of the same policies.
“The new government will have to very rapidly send very clear messages to the markets,” said Luis de Guindos, a professor at IE Business School who is one of the leading candidates to be Rajoy’s finance minister. He said that Rajoy would have to further rein in spending and also pursue labor reforms that would make it easier for employers to hire and fire workers — something that could improve the job market in the long term but would probably increase joblessness in the short term, as employers shed workers they have not been able to dismiss.
As for the Socialists, he said, the shift toward austerity they made last year “was correct. The only problem — this is something that you can smell — is that this strategy was not implemented with conviction.”
But supporters of both main political parties say they will need to work to bring young people back into the fold.
“To be credible again, the Socialists have to convince people that you can be in government and have more autonomy than what they have shown,” said Belen Barreiro, a former adviser to the Socialists and the head of the research department at the Alternatives Foundation, a think tank. “Politics is usually conceived as the solution for problems. Now it’s seen as a problem itself.”
Pollsters say that the likely beneficiary of voters who are fed up with both of the main political parties will be smaller political parties that will probably have little sway in parliament.
“There’s a clear need for people to be listened to,” said Fernando Sabin, 32, who was involved with the indignado protests in May. Politicians “hear what we’re saying, but they’re not listening.”
Special correspondent Pamela Rolfe contributed to this report.