Madrid - Several thousand protesters angry over Spain's economic crisis and soaring jobless rate defied a ban by Madrid authorities and pressed on Wednesday with demonstrations ahead of weekend local elections.
Demonstrators have camped in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square and in cities around the country since the weekend, responding to calls on online social networks and by the Real Democracy protest organisation.
Some have vowed to stay until the regional and municipal elections on Sunday.
However, electoral authorities in the Madrid region denied an official request by organisers to hold a rally in the Puerta del Sol from 8pm on Wednesday.
The request was not submitted with 24 hours' notice as required by law and the demonstration “could affect the electoral campaign and the freedom of citizens with the right to vote”, a spokesperson for the election authority in the region said.
A spokesperson 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”.
One demonstrator, Carlota Jover, said the electoral board's decision “has no binding effect, therefore there is no ban”.
About 15 police vehicles took up positions in and around the square Wednesday evening but officers took no action and the police presence diminished later.
By midnight, most of the protesters were starting to disperse as rain fell.
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.
The demonstrators chanted slogans and waved placards outside the embassy in Belgrave Square in the centre of the British capital.
Spain's jobless rate hit 21.19 percent in the first quarter of this year, the highest in the industrialised world. For the young the situation is more desperate: 44.6 percent unemployment for under-25s in February.
Carrying placards reading “Make the guilty pay for the crisis” and chanting “They call this democracy but it is not”, the protesters hope to be heard in Sunday's 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.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's ruling Socialist Party was “alarmed” by the protesters, fearing them to be disaffected left-wing supporters who would abandon the party at the ballot box, the leading daily El Pais said.
Weekend polls forecast devastating losses for the Socialists as voters punish them for the government's handling of the economic crisis, including painful austerity measures.
Mariano Rajoy, leader of the conservative Popular Party, which stands to make huge gains in the elections, said he could understand the protesters' motives.
The youth unemployment rate was “terrible” and unacceptable in a country like Spain, he said.
Polls published in the centre-left El Pais and the conservative El Mundo predicted broad losses for the Socialists including in strongholds such as Barcelona, Seville and the Castilla-La Mancha region. The Socialist Party is “on the edge of a catastrophe,” El Mundo predicted.
Zapatero announced on April 2 that he would not stand for a third term in general elections scheduled for March 2012. Some in the party believe a new leader could halt the fall in the Socialists' popularity.
But while the Socialist Party touts its tough economic reforms internationally as a sign that it is repairing Spain's finances, analysts say the party will pay the price at the polls.
“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. - Sapa-AFP