Spain: Protesters defy ban with anti-government rallies

Young people at Madrid's Puerta del Sol Young people are angry that, despite qualifications, there is no work

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Thousands of people have taken part in protests across Spain's main cities, defying a government ban on political protest ahead of local elections.

In Madrid, some 25,000 protesters occupied a main square. Others gathered in Barcelona, Valencia and Seville.

The protesters are angry with the government's economic policies and the country's high youth unemployment rate.

Spain's electoral commission had ordered those camped out in Madrid to leave ahead of Sunday's elections.

But, as the ban came into effect at midnight, the crowds started cheering and police did not move in.

The protest began six days ago in Madrid's Puerta del Sol as a spontaneous sit-in by young Spaniards frustrated at 45% youth unemployment.

The crowd camping out in the square overnight grew and the protest has spread to other cities across the country.

Sarah Rainsford in Madrid: "This began as a spontaneous sit-in"

According to Spanish news agency, Efe, a total of some 60,000 protesters has gathered across Spain, in Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, Bilbao as well as the capital.

The protesters, dubbed "los indignados" [the indignant], are demanding jobs, better living standards, a fairer system of democracy and changes to the Socialist government's austerity plans.

"They want to leave us without public health, without public education, half of our youth is unemployed, they have risen the age of our retirement as well," said protester Natividad Garcia.

"This is an absolute attack on what little state welfare we had."

Protest growing

Another protester said she was taking part because she had no employment prospects despite having a degree.

Analysis

It is perhaps surprising that Spain's youth has taken quite so long to come out onto the streets. Unemployment among 16 to 29-year-olds is estimated to be around 45%.

The jobless rate for the whole population is over 20% - the highest in Europe. And not only are they fed up with their economic situation, they are also calling for an end to domination of the political system by the two main parties.

There is something inevitable about economic crisis leading to protest.

The student demonstrations in Britain, the riots in Greece, and the union protests in France, Italy, and Belgium were all born of the same frustration.

Europe's leaders have chosen, to a greater or lesser extent, to ignore the voices on the streets. Believing instead that austerity is the way out of the economic crisis.

And, so far, the protests across Europe have not grown into anything big enough to force them to change tack

"This should make the political classes aware that something is not right," said 25-year-old Inma Moreno.

Many of the participants have drawn parallels between their actions and the pro-democracy protests in central Cairo that revolutionised Egypt.

Political rallies are banned under Spanish law on the day before elections to allow for a "day of reflection" - a ruling which was upheld by the electoral commission.

Some protesters had said they feared a police crackdown, but Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said the police were "not going to resolve one problem by creating another".

As the midnight deadline to disperse approached, many of the protesters wore tape over their mouths to imply they felt they were being prevented from speaking.

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford, in Madrid, said there was a moment's silence as the ban came into effect, before the square erupted in jeers, cheers and chanting.

Police were on the scene but did not intervene and the outdoor sit-in appears to be growing rather than ending, says our correspondent.

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The protesters' demands, pasted up all over Puerta del Sol, are impossible to ignore”

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What started as a spontaneous movement now looks like it could be here to stay for some time, she says.

Spain's 21.3% unemployment rate is the highest in the EU - a record 4.9 million are jobless, many of them young people.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has expressed some sympathy for the protesters, noting their "peaceful manner".

"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," he told radio Cadena Ser.

However, his Socialist government is expected to fare badly in Sunday's local and regional elections.

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