Zapatero loses lead in Spanish opinion poll

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The Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has fallen behind the opposition for the first time since he came to power in 2004, according to a poll published by El Mundo newspaper.

According to a Sigma Dos opinion poll published by newspaper El Mundo, voters gave the Socialist prime minister an average 4.1 points out of 10, versus 4.21 for Mariano Rajoy who leads the conservative Popular Party.

At the last poll in January Zapatero, who is suffering a mid-term credibility crisis during Spain's worst recession for 40 years, led with 4.53 to Rajoy's 4.18.

The survey was carried out following a surprise announcement 10 days ago that the government planned to raise the pension age to 67 from 65, causing outrage among all segments of society.

It also showed Zapatero's Socialists were increasingly lagging the PP as unemployment soars to near 20 percent and the budget deficit hits 11.4 percent of gross domestic product - something which investors fear could lead to a Greek-style fiscal crisis.

The PP is now almost 6 percentage points ahead of the Socialists with 43.5 percent of intended votes, although the PP itself has lost one tenth of a point since the last poll.

The Socialist government further fanned the discontent by including in austerity proposals sent to the European Commission a proposal that would effectively reduce pensions as paid to the public. It then had to backtrack swiftly, saying this was only an idea and not a concrete plan.

A second Metroscopia poll, published in newspaper El Pais, also put the Socialists almost 6 points behind the PP. It also showed that most people disapproved of both Rajoy and Zapatero, although Zapatero had a slightly lower disapproval rating.

According to Sigma Dos, those gaining most from Zapatero's weakness are United Left, with 4.5 percent of intended votes and the Progress and Democracy Union, a new party which has won support from disenchanted voters on the right and the left, with 4.4 percent.