May 19, 2024

Despite Ban, Protests Continue Before Spanish Vote

MADRID — Tens of thousands of demonstrators across Spain continued sit-ins and other protests against the established political parties on Saturday. They did so in defiance of a ban against such protests and ahead of regional and municipal elections on Sunday.

About 28,000 people, most of them young, spent Friday night in Puerta del Sol, a main square in downtown Madrid, the police said. They stayed even as the protest ban went into effect at midnight under rules that bring an official end to campaigning before the election in 13 of Spain’s 17 regions and in more than 8,000 municipalities.

Fueling the demonstrators’ anger is the perceived failure by politicians to alleviate the hardships imposed on a struggling population. The unemployment rate in Spain is 21 percent.

Beyond economic complaints, the protesters’ demands include improving the judiciary, ending political corruption and overhauling Spain’s electoral structure, notably by ending the system in which candidates are selected internally by the parties before an election rather than chosen directly by voters.

The protests, which started May 15, have spread gradually across Spain. Spaniards overseas have also held some protests in front of their embassies to show their support for an alternative campaign that has almost eclipsed that of the established parties.

Although some of the protest groups have called for people to vote for smaller and alternative parties, or to cast a blank ballot, the movement could lead to a decline in voter turnout on Sunday. In the elections four years ago, 63 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

Sunday’s election is expected to result in a countrywide sweep by the Popular Party, the main center-right opposition, at the expense of the governing Socialists, whose popularity has plummeted because of the economic crisis. The most recent opinion polls suggest that the Socialist Party may lose in regions and municipalities where it has been in power since Spain’s return to democracy in the late 1970s, notably Castilla-La Mancha.

Whatever the outcome, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced in April that he would not seek a third term, paving the way for the selection of a new Socialist leader before the general election, which is expected in March 2012.

As the campaign ban came into force at midnight, many of the Madrid protesters stuck tape across their mouths to signal that they would continue the demonstration, even if ordered to be silent. “The voice of the people can never be illegal,” read some of the banners, while others argued, “We are not against the system but the system is against us.”

Still, the government suggested that it would not order the police to use force to break up any protests and sit-ins in Madrid and elsewhere over the weekend, especially given that protests this week have not generated any violence. Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, speaking during a visit to the Murcia region, said that “the police are there to solve problems and not create new ones.”

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