|Thousands of demonstrators demand social and political changes, the day prior to the elections. [EPA]|
Thousands of Spaniards have filled city squares and camped out across the country to protest against government austerity before regional elections on Sunday which are likely to deal a blow to the Socialist government.
“In theory, we are going to continue” the protests after the elections, said Angela Cartagena, a spokeswoman for the organisers at the ramshackle protest ‘village’ that has sprung up in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square.
A “general assembly” of the organisers would be held on Sunday morning to confirm the decision, she said.
Al Jazeera’s Tim Friend, reporting from Madrid, said that the effect of the protests on the elections is still not clear.
“It is being called by local media an explosion of social activism not seen since the advent of democracy here in Spain. Many of the protesters are young people and they are very angry about the 45 per cent unemployment rate amongst the young people here in Spain.”
In the first major election since the government passed huge spending cuts and unpopular reforms, some voters will have to pick their way through plazas littered with protesters’ tents and makeshift beds to reach polling stations.
Demonstrations are forbidden in Spain on election days and the preceding 24 hours. Spain’s electoral commission 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 regional and municipal elections, meaning political activity is barred.
No police intervention
But the government has not sent in police to enforce the ban, fearing violence after a week of peaceful protest.
“The government has not given such an (evacuation) order” and “this will continue provided that there are no riots or crimes,” an interior ministry source said.
Tens of thousands of protesters have daily joined those camped out for the past week. An estimated 30,000 were on Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza on Saturday night, demonstrating against the government’s handling of an economic crisis which broke out in 2008.
The ruling Socialists, who have imposed deep spending cuts while unemployment has soared to 21.3 per cent, are expected to suffer major losses in the elections for 8,116 city councils and 13 out of 17 regional governments.
Analysts doubt the demonstrations will change the result of Sunday’s vote which will be followed by national elections next March when the opposition centre-right Popular Party (PP) is expected to do well.
The demonstrations have attracted Spaniards of all ages but the bulk have been young people who have been hit especially hard hit by the crisis. Almost half of 18-25 year-old Spaniards are out of work, more than double the European Union average.
Protesters also gathered in Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, Bilbao and other cities, urging people not to vote for either of Spain’s two main parties, the Socialists or the PP.
After the euro zone debt crisis forced Greece, and later Ireland and Portugal, to take bailouts, Spain implemented a round of measures to tackle a huge public deficit and persuade financial markets that it has the budget under control.
While the austerity has reduced the risk that the euro zone’s fourth largest economy will also need an international rescue, it has angered Spaniards who are expected deliver the Socialists a drubbing at the regional elections.