Defiant Spanish protesters warn 'we're here to stay'
Spanish youths furious over soaring unemployment kept up their week-long nationwide protest Saturday, on the eve of local elections expected to hand the ruling Socialists a crushing defeat.
"We intend to continue, because this is not about Sunday's elections it's about social cutbacks," said Carmen Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the organisers at the ramshackle protest 'village' that has sprung up in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square.
Thousands of people have massed in city centres across the country in a snowballing movement that began May 15, the biggest spontaneous protests since the property bubble burst in 2008 and plunged Spain into a recession from which it only emerged this year.
The crisis pushed Spain's unemployment rate to 21.19 percent in the first quarter of this year, the highest in the industrialised world. For under-25s, the rate in February was 44.6 percent.
Under the slogan of "Real Democracy Now", the protests, popularly known as M-15, were called to condemn joblessness, the economic crisis, politicians in general, corruption and government austerity measures.
In the spearhead protest, some 25,000 people filled the Puerta del Sol square, spilling onto surrounding streets, late on Friday to stage a brief silent protest, their hands in the air and many with their mouths covered by tape.
The crowd then erupted in whistles and cheers of joy as a 48-hour ban on the protests called for by Spain's election commission took effect at the chimes of midnight.
"Now we are all illegal," shouted the protesters.
"From Tahrir to Madrid to the world, world revolution," said one of the placards in the Spanish capital, referring to Tahrir Square in Cairo which was the focal point of the Egyptian revolution earlier this year.
Only a few hundred remained early Saturday afternoon in stifling heat under the vast blue tarpaulins that cover much of the square, which has been divided into "zones" that include a kitchen, a pharmacy, a library, a workshop and a children's centre.
Hundreds of others, including tourists, shoppers and curious onlookers, milled around the square, entertained by streets performers.
The organisers plan another mass demonstration for Saturday evening.
Thais Ribera, 23 and unemployed, said she had traveled from the northwestern region of Galicia on Thursday.
"I'm here because everything has to change, not just in Spain but throughout Europe," she said.
"When I have children I want to be able to look them in the eyes," she said, carrying a cardboard sign round her neck that read, "Thank you. You have given me back faith in human beings."
She planned to enter a blank ballot in Sunday's election "as I don't have enough choice," she said.
Spain's leading daily El Pais said around 60,000 people took part in nationwide protests during the night. Apart from Madrid, the largest gatherings were in Valencia, Malaga and Barcelona.
No major incidents were reported and police did not intervene.
Spain's electoral commission on Thursday declared that protests planned for Saturday and Sunday were illegal as they "go beyond the constitutionally guaranteed right to demonstrate."
Saturday is by law "a day of reflection" ahead of the elections, meaning political activity is barred.
"I can't say how long we will be here," said the spokeswoman Sanchez, adding that it could be "weeks or months." But "I think what we're doing is legal."
Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said Friday that police "will enforce the law" but "in a proportional manner."
But El Pais quoted government sources as saying police would only intervene if there was violence.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on Friday voiced sympathy for the protesters, saying they were reacting to unemployment and the economic crisis "in a peaceful manner."
Even before the protests, polls forecast devastating losses for Zapatero's Socialist Party as voters take revenge for the loss of millions of jobs and painful spending cuts, including to state salaries.
More than 34 million people are eligible to vote Sunday, choosing 8,116 mayors, 68,400 town councillors and 824 members of regional parliaments for 13 of the 17 semi-autonomous regions.
Polls in El Pais and El Mundo predicted the Socialists would lose control of strongholds such as Barcelona, Seville and the Castilla-La Mancha region.
© 2011 AFP