Spaniards reeling from an economic crisis voted Sunday in an election expected to throw out the ruling Socialists and bring in a centre-right party which promises only harsher austerity measures.
A grim mood dominated as people went to the polls 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.
Being a civil servant I'm not optimistic, said Jose Vasquez, 45, who was among the early voters in the capital Madrid.
We can choose the sauce they will cook us in, but we're still going to be cooked.
Pre-election opinion polls gave the conservative People's Party (PP), led by Mariano Rajoy, an unassailable lead over the Socialists, who have led Spain from boom to bust in seven years.
Voters are angry with the Socialists for failing to act swiftly to prevent the slide in the euro zone's fourth-largest economy and then for belatedly bringing in austerity measures that have slashed wages, benefits and jobs.
Yet people now seem resigned to further cuts, including in health and education, in the midst of a European debt crisis that has 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.
Rajoy, who led his party in two previous failed parliamentary election campaigns, is likely to win an absolute majority giving him a clear mandate to enforce the deep and painful cuts seen as necessary 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 euro zone 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.
CHEAP CREDIT THEN CRASH
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero decided against running for a third term as his approval ratings sank. The Socialists then chose veteran politician Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba as their leader for the campaign, but he struggled to differentiate himself from 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 all found themselves over their heads in debt.
The best social policy is to create jobs, said voter Luis Escobar, a 50-year-old hotel worker.
The guys in power haven't done anything so if you want things to change you have to do something, he said, adding that he would vote for the People's Party.
The crisis has hit some regions, notably southern Andalucia, heartland of Spain's tourist industry, worse than others.
In the Basque Country, people were voting for the first time in years without the threat of violence, after 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.
For the time being I've got a pretty good pension and the crisis hasn't affected me yet. Of course it will reach me, said 81-year-old Laureano Agirremota in the industrial city of Bilbao. I've always voted the same, for the Basque Nationalist Party.
By mid-afternoon, on a day when rain swept the country, turn-out among Spain's 36 million potential voters was 59 percent, officials said.
(Additional reporting by Nigel Davies, Tomas Cobos, Fiona Ortiz, Sonia Dowsett in Madrid and Arantza Goyoaga in Bilbao, writing by Angus MacSwan, editing by Barry Moody)