Spain's PM wary of protest crackdown ahead of vote

20th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Spain's prime minister Friday refused to be rushed into a crackdown on swelling protests over unemployment as his Socialist Party braced for a crushing defeat in weekend local elections.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero even voiced some sympathy with the "peaceful" demonstrations ahead of Sunday's regional and municipal elections.

The predicted rout of the Socialists in the polls would be a bad omen for the party ahead of general elections scheduled for March 2012, when the conservative opposition Popular Party is expected to romp into office.

Thousands of people have massed in city centres across the country in an expanding movement that began May 15, the biggest spontaneous protests since the property bubble exploded in 2008 and plunged Spain into a recession from which it only emerged this year.

The electoral commission late 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 vote, meaning political activity is barred.

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

"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 put tape over their mouths and then remove it at five minutes after midnight to mime a "silent shout" of unified protest, it said in the statement.

Zapatero said the protesters were reacting to unemployment and the economic crisis "in a peaceful manner."

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," Zapatero told radio Cadena Ser.

He said the government was studying the electoral commission's decision 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."

Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba later said police "will enforce the law" against the protesters but "in a proportional manner."

"Police will take decisions according to developments," he told a news conference following a cabinet meeting.

Spain's leading daily El Pais quoted government sources as saying police will only intervene if there is violence.

"The fact that the gatherings are banned in not enough reason for the police to act" against the demonstrators, the centre-left paper said on its website.

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 forecast 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 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 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 next year.

© 2011 AFP

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