Spain PM mum on breaking up pre-election protests

May 20, 2011 - 6:58 AM
APTOPIX Spain Crisis Protest

Demonstrators in tents spend the night at Sol square during a protest in Madrid, Friday May 20, 2011. Spanish university students and youth groups are protesting against a youth unemployment rate of 40 percent and austerity measures taken to end Spain's debt crisis. The biggest banner in Spanish reads

MADRID (AP) — Spain's prime minister avoided saying Friday if he'll order police to break up crowds if they attend banned election-eve protests, part of a snowballing movement that has riveted the country.

The national electoral commission issued the ban Thursday night as thousands of mainly young people demonstrated for a fourth straight night in central Madrid and dozens of other Spanish cities over their bleak economic future.

They are angry over the country's economic crisis and at political parties they see as inept, corrupt and indifferent to everyday people struggling to get by.

Municipal and regional elections are scheduled for Sunday, and the protesters have said they will rally on Saturday and beyond.

The ruling Socialist party is widely expected to suffer big losses at the polls, perhaps even in traditional strongholds. The government is presiding over an economy struggling to overcome recession and create jobs to chip away at a 21.3 percent jobless rate, the highest in the eurozone.

In a radio interview Friday, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said he will play things by ear about whether to order police to break up demonstrations.

"Let's see what happens tomorrow. In any case, I should not get ahead of events," he told Cadena Ser. "What I can say is that the government and Interior Ministry will behave well, will behave correctly and will behave with intelligence."

Pressed as to what would happen if protesters defy the ban, Zapatero repeated the same answer, almost word for word.

In Spain, rallies called to urge people to vote one way or another are banned the day before an election, called "days of reflection." So Friday was the last day for candidates to campaign in these elections for town halls nationwide and 13 of Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions. The 13-member national election commission cited the ban in saying there could be no protests Saturday or on election day Sunday.

But it was deeply divided, with the ban approved by just a one-vote margin. The panel was convened to give a blanket ruling for all of Spain because provincial election bodies had issued contradictory rulings, with some allowing protests this week and some banning them, as was the case in Madrid.

"On days of reflection and voting, our electoral legislation prohibits any act of propaganda or electoral campaigning," the commission wrote.

Organizers of the protests say, however, that they have no party affiliation, are not trying to affect the outcome in any way, and are not even urging people to abstain from voting.

Zapatero urged protesters to respect Saturday as a day of reflection and said he was sensitive to the worries of young people facing a jobless rate of more than 40 percent. But he said Spain has come through economic crises before and urged Spaniards not to lose hope, although he recognized it will take years to bring the jobless rate down significantly.

With the protesters insisting they are fed up with Spain's political system in general, Zapatero said he felt like the main target of their ire.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, as prime minister I must feel like the one who is most singled out," Zapatero said.

Conservative opposition leader Mariano Rajoy said Friday the election commission's order "should be carried out", but he stopped short of urging the government to send in police if there are demonstrations this weekend.

Spain's interior minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba "cannot just look the other way" if protesters rally, Rajoy said.

Some candidates spend "reflection days" resting and some news media run stories on them practicing their hobbies or hiking to relax after an intense two-week campaign.