Protesters vow to stay as Spain holds local elections
Protesters seething over mass unemployment defied a ban on their swelling movement Sunday even as Spaniards voted in local elections expected to crush the ruling Socialists.
Blasting big politics for the bleak economy and a jobless rate of more than 21 percent, they packed city centres around the country from Barcelona to the holiday island of Majorca.
In a blue and clear plastic-covered protest camp in central Madrid's Puerta del Sol square, spearhead of the nationwide action, hundreds of activists agreed in a show of hands to stay at least until May 29.
The protests, organized since May 15 via Twitter and Facebook, have grown unimpeded despite an election commission ruling that they are illegal because they clash with the municipal and regional voting.
An estimated 60,000 people descended into the streets around the country on the eve of the election but it was difficult to gauge the likely electoral impact.
Voting numbers appeared robust: 35.79 percent of voters had cast a ballot by 2pm (1200 GMT), up slightly from same time in the last local elections four years ago, government figures showed.
Surveys have forecast devastating losses for the Socialists as people take revenge for the destruction of millions of jobs and painful spending cuts, including reductions to state salaries.
Protesters describe themselves as the "indignant", and are known variously as "M-15" in reference to the birth date, "Spanish Revolution" and "Real Democracy Now".
"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 in Puerta del Sol.
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," 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.
In the northern semi-autonomous Basque Country, the focus is on a new political force, Bildu, which 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 nationwide will close at 8pm (1800 GMT) with first results expected two-three hours later.
© 2011 AFP