Ruling Socialists face Spain poll rout

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Spain's ruling Socialists Thursday faced the prospect of a rout in weekend local elections as fury over soaring numbers of jobless exploded into nationwide protests.

Young people camped in main squares across Spain in the largest spontaneous protests since the country plunged into recession after the collapse of a property bubble in 2008.

At the spearhead in Madrid, organisers communicating via Twitter and Facebook rallied thousands in the central Puerta de Sol square to decry politicians who left Spain with a 21-percent jobless rate.

They defied the Madrid authorities' refusal to grant a protest permit on Wednesday evening and hundreds remained Thursday, refusing to budge before regional and municipal elections on Sunday.

A spokesman for the organisers, Juan Rubio, vowed the protesters would "stay here until election day."

If police try to "remove us we will sit down, everything will be peaceful, and if we are eventually dispersed we will come back tomorrow."

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

The Socialist Party is "on the edge of a catastrophe," the centre-right daily El Mundo predicted this week.

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.

Although some in the party believe a new leader could halt the fall in the Socialists' popularity, analysts said it would have little impact on the local elections.

"The effect of Zapatero's announcement will be very limited," said political analyst Josep Ramoneda. "The Socialists will not escape this punishment vote."

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.

Mariano Rajoy, leader of the conservative Popular Party, which stands to make huge gains, said he could understand the protesters' motives.

The youth unemployment rate was "terrible" and unacceptable in a country like Spain, he said.

"We are tired of the unemployment, the corruption of politicians. It is always the same thing. I have no job, and I don't see how I can get one any time soon," said 25-year-old Jordi Perez in Madrid.

"They have to know how we feel," Perez said.

More than 34 million people are eligible to vote in the local elections.

Mostly peaceful, the protests began May 15, lamenting Spain's economic crisis, politicians in general, and corruption.

"This is a movement that is under construction, we are still gathering ideas, organising gatherings for social change," said Rubio.

The protests seem to have caught political parties by surprise.

Hundreds also defied bans in the southern cities of Granada and Seville, Spanish media said. Protests have been held in Barcelona, Valencia, Zaragoza and Palma de Majorca.

In London, around 100 Spaniards gathered outside their country's embassy to voice their support for the protests, an AFP reporter said.

© 2011 AFP

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