Europe

Spain election: Economic woes dominate campaign

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Media captionThe opposition Popular Party is promising economic recovery and new jobs

Villacanas used to be a Spanish boomtown - today, as the country approaches a general election, it is a symbol of the economic crisis.

On the town's outskirts, a herd of sheep trot past abandoned factories that once turned out thousands of wooden doors each week.

They were destined for the hundreds of thousands of homes Spain was building at the height of the construction boom.

Now that has crashed. Villacanas, like Spain, is struggling.

Manuel Torres lost his job three years ago. Today his old factory stands idle: paint peeling and workbenches overturned.

"There's nothing in this town now, nothing at all," he says, peering through a shattered window into his former workplace. "We were dependent on doors here and now that's gone."

Like many Spaniards, Mr Torres is hoping this weekend's election can bring change.

All the latest opinion polls put the opposition conservative Popular Party on course for an absolute majority in parliament.

Its latest TV advert urges voters to "Join the Change", citing grim statistics: one-in-five workers unemployed; one-in-eight businesses closed in 2011; one-in-10 families with no wage-earner at all.

That legacy is a major burden for the Socialist government as it battles for a third term in office.

Policy U-turn

The Socialists' candidate to run the country, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, has just tripled the number of rallies on his schedule in a final push for votes.

Image caption The Socialists' candidate for prime minister has tripled the number of rallies on his campaign schedule

In Toledo last week, he was greeted by a crowd of fans chanting his name and a sea of bright red flags.

"We have to say with pride that in the midst of this storm we have stuck to our values," Mr Rubalcaba said, stressing over and over his commitment to social spending and the welfare state.

He proposes raising taxes on the rich to help pay for it.

The economic crisis forced the government to freeze pensions and cut public sector salaries last year in a controversial policy U-turn likely to cost votes.

But the party's key tactic now is to warn that the Popular Party would bring deeper, more painful spending cuts.

"It's very hard," admits Alejandro Alonso, a Socialist candidate in Toledo.

"The people suffering most in this crisis are traditional socialist voters. But what we're saying is yes, things are tough now, but they'll be much worse under the Popular Party."

The Popular Party insists it has no plans for cuts in health services or education, saying savings will come through efficiency and eliminating duplication.

There would be no tax rises, but tax incentives to encourage business.

Don Quixote territory

Riding towards victory on a wave of economic misery, the Popular Party is primarily promising change.

"I think the Socialist government abandoned the economic reforms that made Spain a success at the start of this century," argues Baudilio Tome, described as the "father" of the party's manifesto.

The party was voted out of office in 2004.

Image caption La Mancha is still home to windmills

"We want to return trust to the Spanish economy," he says.

In the great plain of Castilla-La Mancha, once roamed by the fictional Don Quixote, there are indications of what Popular Party rule might look like.

The region has been run by the party since local elections in May. It promptly declared Castilla-La Mancha "almost bankrupt" and a wave of cuts - and protests - have followed.

Most strikingly, the region's pharmacies have not been reimbursed for dispensing prescription medicine since June.

"They owe us around 230m euros [$315m; £197] in this region, it's very bad," explains Maria Dolores Espinosa in her busy Toledo chemist.

"They say they have no money and they can't pay. But prescription medicine should be a priority and they've put it at risk now."

The Popular Party argues it is simply dealing with huge debts amassed over years of reckless spending by the Socialists.

Austerity is the medicine it plans to administer at national level, if elected.

This week, the Castilla-La Mancha government made a show of auctioning off dozens of official cars bought by the previous administration.

They included a bulletproof limousine with a near-400,000-euro price tag.

"The Socialists have had their chance for eight years, now it's time for the Popular Party," argues Baudilio Tome.

"The Spanish people want a new, strong government. We're asking for broad support, despite any previous affiliation," he says, confident that a desire for change will overcome anxiety about austerity.

Decision time

But in this region, change is already under way.

In the shadow of La Mancha's vast windmills, locals have begun returning to the land. The crisis has brought a resurgence of interest in saffron farming, traditionally a resource for the poor.

Image caption Unemployed factory hands are returning to Castilla-La Mancha's old standby, the saffron crop

"They left for jobs in construction, now they're coming back," says long-time farmer Gregoria Carasco, in the midst of a field bursting with frail, lilac flowers.

"People are calling me desperate to buy the bulbs. When you're struggling all year, the saffron harvest can solve a lot of problems."

But Spain's problems are on a far grander scale. And Sunday is decision time.

"I don't know who I'll vote for yet," Gregoria's daughter Alicia admits, dropping the tiny flowers into a wicker basket.

"But we won't solve all these problems just by changing the government. All this is with us for the long term."

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