MADRID Thousands of Spaniards marched in cities across the country on Sunday to decry tough austerity measures, part of a growing protest movement that shows no signs of abating and could culminate in a general strike in November.
Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards have taken to the streets in near-daily protests over the past few months, creating a headache for the centre-right government as it faces regional elections and tries to assure investors the country is stable.
Spanish labour unions said they would call a general strike if the government did not hold a referendum on unpopular spending cuts. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy unveiled 13 billion euros (10.5 billion pounds) in additional savings in a tough budget last month.
"It's up to the government whether there's a general strike or not. If they were going to hold a referendum things would be completely different," said Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, leader of Spain's biggest union, Comisiones Obreras. The organisation told Reuters last week a strike could be held on November 14.
Spain is now at the eye of the euro zone storm, with expectations mounting that the government will soon seek European aid to keep its borrowing costs under control.
"It's shameful - we're losing everything," said Carmen Lopez, a department store worker at Sunday's protest in the capital. "Pensions, salaries, public healthcare and education. They're taking everything."
Some 60,000 people attended the union-organised march in the centre of Madrid. "How can there be peace without bread?" and "Their plunder, my crisis", placards read.
"I'm a teacher and they've really cut back in education - there are fewer resources, fewer teachers and more students," said Agustin Moreno, who teaches in the Madrid neighbourhood of Vallecas.
"We will do everything we can. We will keep protesting," he added.
Protesters were decked out in the colours of various unions, and many wore T-shirts saying "I used to have social and labour rights".
"They're taking away help for people who are unemployed, just at the time when people most need the help," said primary school teacher Francisca Valverde.
Protests were taking place in dozens of cities on Sunday, but there were no reports of any violence.
Rajoy's People's Party (PP) faces regional elections in Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia - increasingly vocal about its desire to break away from Spain - in the coming weeks.
In the wake of violence during a protest in Madrid on September 25, Rajoy urged a business audience in New York last week to focus on the "silent majority" of Spaniards who do not protest.
But a survey in El Pais newspaper on Sunday showed 77 percent of Spaniards support the protesters, while more than 90 percent think protests will become more frequent.
The government is increasingly unpopular at home and must convince uneasy investors that it can keep a lid on social unrest and carry out its austerity policies.
The right to protest has become a topic of fierce debate in Spain since the September 25 demonstration ended in 35 arrests and left 64 people injured.
Last week politicians from the ruling People's Party (PP) said laws surrounding protests should be tightened up, with Madrid's local government chief Ignacio Gonzalez saying the capital was in "a constant state of collapse" because of demonstrations.
But a Spanish court on Thursday threw out a police case against the organisers of the protest, saying people had a right to express their opinion. The court will also investigate police brutality at Madrid's Atocha station during the demonstration.
(Additional reporting by Silvio Castellanos and Luis Cano)