Spain's PM sympathises with protesters ahead of vote

20th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Spain's prime minister voiced sympathy Friday for a protest movement against mass unemployment that has taken the country by storm ahead of weekend local elections set to punish his Socialist Party.

But Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was guarded as to how the authorities would react if protesters defied a ruling by Spain's electoral commission against further demonstrations planned for this weekend.

Thousands of people have massed in city centres in a growing movement that began May 15, the biggest spontaneous protests since the property bubble exploded 2008 and plunged Spain into recession.

The electoral commission late on Thursday said protests planned for Saturday and for Sunday, the day when regional and municipal polls are scheduled, "go beyond the constitutionally guaranteed right to demonstrate."

Saturday is by law "a day of reflection" ahead of the vote, meaning political activity is barred.

But organisers of the spearhead protest in Madrid's Puerta del Sol called for a huge silent demonstration to begin in the early hours of Saturday, minutes after midnight.

"We are calling on everyone to gather in Puerta del Sol and carry out the 'silent protest' action," one of the organising groups, "No nos vamos" ("We are not leaving"), said in an online statement.

Protesters would tie ribbons over their mouths and remove them at five minutes after midnight to mime a "silent shout" of unified protest, it said in the statement.

Zapatero said he had sympathy for the protesters ahead of Sunday's municipal and regional elections at which his Socialists fear huge losses.

"I want to underline that they are doing it in a peaceful manner," Zapatero told radio Cadena Ser.

Unemployment and the economic crisis were behind the protests, the prime minister said.

Spain's jobless rate hit 21.19 percent in the first quarter of this year, the highest in the industrialised world. For under-25s, the jobless rate in February was 44.6 percent.

"My obligation is to listen, be sensitive, try to give an answer from the government so that we can recover the economy and employment as soon as possible," the premier said.

Zapatero said the government was studying the electoral commission's ruling and would wait to see how the protests develop on Saturday.

"In any case we should not get ahead of ourselves. What we can say is that, as I think has been the case up to now, the interior ministry will act well, correctly, with intelligence."

Calling for "Real Democracy Now," the protests popularly known as M-15 began May 15, lamenting Spain's economic crisis, politicians in general, and corruption.

They are now camped out across the country including in Barcelona, Seville, Granada, Cadiz, Malaga, Bilbao, Valencia, Burgos, Palma de Majorca and Santander.

Even before the protests, polls tipped devastating losses for the Socialists as voters take revenge for the destruction of millions of jobs and painful spending cuts, including to state salaries.

More than 34 million people are eligible to vote, choosing 8,116 mayors, 68,400 town councillors and 824 members of regional parliaments for 13 of the 17 semi-autonomous regions.

Polls in the centre-left daily El Pais and El Mundo predicted the Socialists would lose control of strongholds such as Barcelona, Seville and the Castilla-La Mancha region.

Zapatero announced on April 2 that he would not stand for a third term in general elections scheduled for March 2012.

Zapatero's Socialists won consecutive elections in 2004 and 2008 but few even within his party predict victory in 2012, when the conservative Popular Party is expected to romp into office.

© 2011 AFP

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