Mass protests overshadow Spanish local elections

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Spaniards fuming over mass unemployment defied a ban on their swelling protests even as voting began Sunday in local elections expected to crush the ruling Socialists.

Protesters, who blame politicians for bleak economic prospects and a jobless rate of more than 21 percent, remained camped under plastic covers in central Madrid's Puerta del Sol square on election day.

The electoral impact of the protests, which have brought tens of thousands into 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, refusing to budge despite an election commission ruling that their gatherings illegal.

"I am going to protest until there is a change," said 29-year-old Ana Rodriguez, unemployed for two years despite having two engineering degrees, who spent the night in Madrid's Puerta del Sol.

Rodriguez said she would vote for a small party to provoke change.

But 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 2012, analysts say his party could be left short of an absolute majority in all the 13 regions up for grabs.

Spain's press urged people to cast a vote.

"The crisis favours a populist rejection of politics, but the solution is not to abstain," said an editorial in the leading daily El Pais.

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, beating the main conservative opposition, the Popular Party.

Polls opened at 9.00 am (0700 GMT) and will close at 8.00 pm (1800 GMT) with first results expected two or three hours later.

© 2011 AFP

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