MADRID Spanish youth vowed on Friday to continue demonstrating against unemployment and mainstream politics, and the government thought twice about enforcing a ban on election weekend protests that could provoke clashes.
Dubbed "los indignados" (the indignant), tens of thousands demonstrating against unemployment and deep austerity measures have filled the main squares of Spain's cities for five days, marking a shift after years of patience with an economic slump.
The electoral board ruled on Thursday that protests would be illegal on Saturday, the eve of elections when Spaniards will choose 8,116 city councils and 13 out of 17 regional governments.
But Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has failed to contain the highest unemployment in the European Union, at 21.3 percent, said he may not enforce the ban.
"I have a great respect for the people protesting, which they are doing in a peaceful manner, and I understand it is driven by economic crisis and young people's hopes for employment," Zapatero said during a radio interview.
He said the Justice Ministry was reviewing the electoral board's ruling to determine whether it should stand.
PROTESTERS WILL STAY
Some protesters in Puerta del Sol, the central Madrid plaza that has been ground zero for the movement, said they would respect election rules in Spain that forbid active campaigning on the eve of voting, but that they would remain in the square.
Analysts said police action against the protesters would be a disaster for the Socialists.
The protesters have called on Spaniards not to vote for the two main parties, the Socialists or the center-right opposition Popular Party. Leaders of both parties have said they sympathize with the protesters and blame the problems on the other party.
"We won't protest but we'll continue camped out here. We've been here since the beginning and we represent a group of assemblies that want change," said Hernan, a protest leader who declined to give his full name because he said he represented the collective.
Spain has struggled to emerge from a recession, and the collapse of the construction sector and a slump in consumer spending have hit the young particularly hard, with 45 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds unemployed.
"They can't kick us out. The politicians won't allow it, it'll make them look bad right before the voting," said 32-year-old Virginia Braojos, a logistics technician who has come with three friends to the protests every night this week.
NOT A GAME CHANGER
The protests have had huge media attention, but will not change the outcome of Sunday's elections, when the ruling Socialist party is expected to suffer heavy losses over its handling of the economic crisis, said the head of one of Spain's most prestigious polling companies.
Jose Juan Toharia, president of Metroscopia pollsters, told Reuters the Socialists will lose some urban voters, who will turn to smaller parties, only accentuating the victory for the Popular Party in some regions and cities that have been under the Socialists for decades.
"There will be an authentic cataclysm for the Socialists, who are going to head into general elections next year without a single stronghold," Toharia said.
The next general election is due in March, though some analysts say a Socialist rout could lead to an early election.
STICKING TO DEFICIT COMMITMENT
Zapatero, who slashed government spending this year, promised there would not be a new round of spending cuts following the elections, but stressed Spain's obligation to international markets to stick to its plan to cut the deficit.
"I can guarantee there will be no more spending cuts after the May 22 elections (but) we are committed to the budget target. I insist we will meet this obligation because, if we don't, markets and investors won't finance us, and that would make things worse."
Spain has been under intense market scrutiny since Greece, Ireland and Portugal were forced to accept EU/IMF bailouts. It is widely accepted that a bailout for Spain, the euro zone's fourth largest economy, would stretch the European Union's resources and political will to breaking point.
The protest movement has captured the mood of many Spaniards who have been out of work for months and face a bleak future as the economy is not yet growing robustly enough to create jobs.
While most protesters are young, organizing themselves through Twitter and social media, middle-aged and older people joined the crowds on Friday, frustrated with stagnation.
"My wife, my mother-in-law, myself, all out of work and living off one pension. Do you think that's normal?" said Viorel Sanchez, 54,
(Additional reporting by Paul Day; Editing by Diana Abdallah)