With economy on mind, Spaniards prepare for vote

Spain gears up for elections
Spain gears up for elections

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Spain gears up for elections 01:38

Story highlights

  • Spaniards will head to the polls Sunday
  • There were no rallies Saturday, but images of candidates are everywhere
  • Conservative candidate Rajoy is leading polls
  • The economy is the country's top issue
There were no campaign rallies in Spain Saturday, a traditional "day of reflection" before voters go to the polls Sunday.
No rallies or political statements were permitted by law on the eve of the election. But large election posters with photos of the candidates remained in view throughout the country, and the two main candidates were pictured spending time with their families and collaborators.
The opposition conservative leader, Mariano Rajoy, of the Popular Party, remained far ahead in opinion polls throughout the campaign and is widely expected to be elected as the next prime minister.
As they had throughout the campaign, the candidates and the voters were expected to keep their focus on nation's troubled economy.
In a sale of 10-year government bonds on Thursday, Spain was forced to offer investors nearly 7% in interest, a level that eventually led to bailouts for Greece, Portugal and Ireland, and is perceived as a tipping point for a potential financial bailout.
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Spain battles 45% youth unemployment
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In the closing days of the campaign, Rajoy has spoken repeatedly about the nation's deep economic crisis, which includes the sobering figures of 21.5% unemployment overall, a 45% rate of unemployment for young people, nearly five million working-age Spaniards without a job, a steep public deficit and only tepid economic growth. Some immigrant workers are also leaving the country.
Rajoy, 56, insists his conservatives can get Spain back on the right footing. At his closing rally Friday night at a Madrid sports arena, he called on people to vote.
"The nation is going to tell the world that here we can and will do the right things," Rajoy told thousands at the rally, adding a criticism of the Socialist government. "And the fact there's been a government unable to rise to the occasion will be just a parenthesis, which is now over."
Rajoy has said he would not cut pensions -- which the incumbent Socialist government earlier froze, to much criticism -- but he says all other issues are on the table regarding possible cutbacks to reduce the deficit.
Rajoy also promises to consider tax cuts for businesses to encourage them to hire more workers.
A Cabinet minister between 1996 and 2004 under conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Rajoy twice lost to Socialist Party leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in 2004 and 2008.
But his conservative party swept to victory in regional and local elections last May, presaging what polls predict will be a prime ministerial triumph the third time around.
Zapatero has called the early election and announced he would not seek a third term.
Rajoy's chief challenger is Socialist candidate Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba. The 60-year-old served under Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and most recently under Zapatero, rising to the positions of deputy prime minister and interior minister.
Rubalcaba warned that the conservatives would cut into public health and education, the social programs which he said the Socialist party would fight to preserve, despite the economic crisis.
"Nothing is written in stone," Rubalcaba told a closing rally in the Madrid working-class suburb of Fuenlabrada, urging thousands there to get out the vote. "When there's a crisis and anguish," he added, the social programs "are the safety net."
Spain's parliament has 350 seats, and many polls predict Rajoy will win a majority, which would give him a free hand to set policy. By contrast, if he wins the election but falls short of a majority, he would need to make deals with other parties.
That might mean joining forces with the Socialists, or numerous smaller parties -- including nationalist parties from the northern Basque region and the northeastern region of Catalonia - which typically also win seats in the chamber.
The economic protests across Spain during the past six months have been fueled by the young -- the so called 'indignants' -- but it's not clear how much impact the protesters will have on the results Sunday. The government says there are 1.5 million new voters who have turned 18 since the last elections in 2008.
Esteban Guerrero, who's in his last year of journalism studies at university and has been active in the protests, said: "I think it's necessary to vote but that's not enough. People feel the elections won't change the situation. They won't stop the cutbacks."
Guerrero, 25, sees his own prospects to get a job after college as bleak. "I think there's a pent-up rage. The workers and young people of this country are fed up," Guerrero said. "It's been years of frustration, over cutbacks and lower salaries."
The polls in Spain are open Sunday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (3 a.m. ET to 2 p.m. ET) and complete results are expected later that evening.