Spanish PM skips annual miners' rally for first time
Spain's prime minister skipped an annual miners' rally Sunday for the first time since coming to power, in a sign of growing discontent among his own left-wing allies over his economic policies.
The event in the northern town of Rodiezmo has traditionally been used by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to highlight his close union ties in what is customarily his first major speech after the summer holidays.
But in July Candido Mendez, leader of Spain's second-largest labour confederation, Union General de Trabajadores (UGT), said it would be "inconceivable" for Zapatero to attend the rally, which comes just weeks before Spain's first general strike since 2002.
"The government's problem is not that it has been left without ideas, it is that it has strongly embraced the ideas that it fought just a few months ago," he said Sunday at the rally at Rodiezmo.
The UGT and Spain's other main labour confederation, the Workers Commissions (CC.OO), called the general strike for September 29 to protest government reforms to labour market rules that make it easier to fire workers.
It will be first since Zapatero was first elected into office in 2004.
In June public sector workers staged a one day strike against government spending cuts aimed at slashing a ballooning public deficit that has rattled global financial markets that include an average cut to their salaries of five percent.
Unions also strongly oppose government plans to gradually raise the retirement age to 67 from 65.
The government argues the measures are needed to restore lost economic competitiveness, boost job creation in a country where the unemployment rate has soared to 20 percent and avoid a Greek-style debt crisis.
But the measures have been seen as a policy U-turn on the part of the unions which accuse the government of abandoning its commitment to social policies and embracing free market policies for the economy.
The leader of the main opposition Popular Party (PP), Mariano Rajoy, said Zapatero should have gone to the rally to defend his policies.
"An image is worth more than a thousand words. Zapatero's empty chair, his absence, is the graphic expression of how he has tricked Spaniards," he told a party rally on Saturday in the northwestern town of Soutomaior.
Zapatero, re-elected to a second term in 2008, has seen his popularity sink over the past year as the economic downturn has dragged on, with some polls giving the conservative opposition Popular Party a lead of nearly 10 percent over his Socialist Party.
© 2010 AFP