MADRID Hundreds of young Spaniards camped out in Madrid and other cities on Saturday to protest against high unemployment and austerity, defying a ban on demonstrations in the run up to local elections.
The number of protesters, dubbed "los indignados" (the indignant), was expected to swell by the evening, after 25,000 people crammed into Madrid's main plaza on Friday night.
Protesters were also gathered in Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, Bilbao and other cities, as they have been all week, urging people not to vote for Spain's two main parties, the ruling Socialists or the center-right opposition Popular Party in Sunday's local elections.
Fearing violent clashes, the Socialist government has not enforced a ban, which went into effect at midnight and prohibits political events on the eve of elections.
"I'm protesting because I've got no job future in Spain even though I've finished my degree in tourism," said 25-year-old Inma Moreno on Madrid's Puerta del Sol plaza. "This should make the political classes aware that something is not right."
The Socialists, blamed for their handling of the economic crisis, are expected to suffer major losses in the elections for 8,116 city councils and 13 of 17 regional governments.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has failed to contain the highest unemployment in the European Union at 21.3 percent, said he respected the protesters.
PATIENCE RUNS OUT
Until now Spaniards have been patient with austerity measures and a youth unemployment rate of 45 percent, but the protesters have captured the frustration over the prolonged economic malaise.
"We knew something like this would eventually happen. Spain's politics has not been very convincing and with all the effects of the crisis, something had to happen," said sociologist Fermin Bouza of the Complutense University.
Spain pulled out of recession at the start of last year but the economy has failed to gain serious momentum and unemployment has spiraled ever higher.
The government's borrowing costs have risen as investors see a risk that slow growth will make it impossible for Spain to cut its deficit, possibly setting it up for a financial crisis and rescue such as in Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
The protests have resonated with Spaniards of all ages, including those who remember unrest which swept much of Europe more than 40 years ago.
"I saw the protests in May '68 and this is a similar movement of the youth that had to come out on the streets," said Javier Gutierrez, an engineer accompanied by his wife.
Despite attracting huge media attention, analysts said the protests would not change the outcome of Sunday's elections, other than to deepen the Socialist rout by motivating some people to vote for small leftist parties.
"It'll have a very marginal effect, unless there's some kind of violent outbreak over the weekend, which I doubt," said Fernando Fernandez, an analyst with IE Business School.
(Additional Reporting by Paul Day; Writing by Nigel Davies; Editing by Janet Lawrence)