Huge protests overshadow Spanish local elections

22nd May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Spaniards voted Sunday in local elections set to crush the ruling Socialists even as protesters fuming over mass unemployment defied a ban on their swelling movement.

Demonstrators, who blame mainstream politicians for a jobless rate of more than 21 percent, refused to budge from a makeshift plastic-covered camp in central Madrid's Puerta del Sol square.

The electoral impact of the protests, which have brought tens of thousands onto the streets since May 15, including an estimated 60,000 nationwide on the eve of the election, was difficult to gauge.

Surveys forecast devastating losses for the Socialists as voters take revenge for the destruction of millions of jobs and painful spending cuts, including reductions to state salaries.

Mostly young protesters have massed in city squares across the country, from Barcelona to the holiday island of Majorca, defying an election commission order that their gatherings are illegal.

"It is time to give other parties, with another vision of how to structure a society, a chance to govern," said 21-year-old anthropology student Carlos Casado as he lined up to get a free breakfast.

Others vowed not cast a ballot. "I have never voted in my life because I don't see myself reflected in the politicians, I never felt they listen to us," said 20-year-old Javier Pena Pintor.

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.

The ruling party of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is forecast to lose control of strongholds such as the cities of Barcelona, Seville and the central region of Castile-La Mancha.

Despite Zapatero's promise not to stand in the next general elections due next year, analysts say his party could be left short of an absolute majority in all the 13 regions up for grabs.

"That citizens can cast their vote freely, individually, is one of the great things about democracy. Once we know the results there will be all kinds of analysis," Zapatero said after voting in Madrid.

His opponent, conservative Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy, said: "The most important thing people have when it comes time to decide the matters that affect them is the vote."

Spain's press also urged people to vote.

The conservative daily El Mundo said many young protesters were not alive when Spain transitioned to democracy after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975.

"Maybe they don't know what it cost to get here. Democracy was a collective achievement of millions of Spaniards and it delivered longed-for freedoms but also the greatest period of development and economic prosperity in history," El Mundo said.

Spain's unemployment rate shot 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.

Spain is also focused on the northern semi-autonomous Basque Country, where a new political force, Bildu, is fielding candidates after a court battle to prove it is not a mouthpiece for armed separatist group ETA.

Polls predict Bildu will leap into third place in the Basque Country behind the Basque Nationalist Party and the Socialists.

Polls will close at 8pm (1800 GMT) with first results expected two-three hours later.

© 2011 AFP

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