Madrid – Spaniards are heading to the polls Sunday to vote in general elections amid a sky-high unemployment rate and fears of contagion from the European debt crisis.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero called for early general elections in the face of mounting political pressure due to the faltering economy.
"The future, today more than ever, is in the hands of the citizens," Zapatero said.
The prime minister and his wife, Sonsoles Espinosa, voted around 10:55 a.m. at a polling place in Madrid.
The general elections are being held four months before the originally scheduled date.
Polls ahead of the elections showed widespread dissatisfaction with the government's handling of the economy and predicted a landslide victory for the conservative main opposition Popular Party, or PP.
"I have been in politics for many years, I have held many posts, I have been a councilman for many years and am prepared for what Spaniards want and am at their disposal," PP leader Mariano Rajoy said.
Rajoy and his wife, Elvira Fernandez, voted at a polling place in Madrid.
Spaniards should vote in the general elections because this is the time for the people to "speak up and decide," Rajoy said.
"I want Spaniards to elect their leaders and I want their leaders to be up to the task and measure up. At this time, a big turnout will undoubtedly send a message of great magnitude to the entire world," Rajoy said.
The incumbent Socialists are projected to be battered at the polls by voters fed up with a jobless rate that currently stands at 21.62 percent overall - more than double the European Union's average - and at 45 percent among people under the age of 25, as well as with an economy that grew at a sluggish clip of just 0.8 percent in the third quarter.
The conservative PP is projected to win a clear majority in the lower house of Parliament (between 190-195 of 350 seats), which will also ensure that Rajoy takes the helm as the Iberian nation's next prime minister and the PP's first head of government since Jose Maria Aznar held office from 1996 to 2004.
The Socialists, whose candidate to succeed Zapatero is Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, trail the PP by 16 percentage points in the most recent voter-preference surveys.
Nearly 36 million people, or 700,000 more than in the 2008 balloting, are eligible to vote for the 350 lower-house lawmakers and 208 senators.
About 1.48 million citizens living abroad are also eligible to vote, election officials said.
The polls opened at 9:00 a.m. and will close at 8:00 p.m., with election precincts in the Canary Islands closing an hour later.
Rain is expected to be a problem for voters, with precipitation expected in almost all of Spain's regions.
About 100,000 police and other security forces members have been deployed across the country to maintain order.