Spain's politicians face punishment as city protests dig in

MADRID'S Puerta del Sol square, the centre of nationwide protests against mass unemployment, boiled with political passion, gawkers and families yesterday, while Spaniards voted in local elections.

Tens of thousands of protesters have packed plazas in cities throughout Spain all week in the run-up to election day, demonstrating against austerity measures and urging people not to vote for the ruling Socialists or centre-right Popular Party.

Polls show the Socialists could lose strategic regions such as Castilla-La Mancha, where they have controlled the regional legislature for decades, and the city of Sevilla, where they have been in power for 12 years.

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The Socialists, in power since 2004, are also looking likely to lose the next general election, which is scheduled for March 2012, but could come earlier if big losses this weekend spark a leadership crisis within the party.

Yesterday morning thousands of protesters were in Madrid's Puerta del Sol plaza, cleaning up, handing out donated water and sunscreen to passers by, rearranging tarpaulins, and maintaining a "guerrilla garden", where they dug out flowers to plant vegetables.

The buildings that surround the square are plastered with hand-made signs saying "Eat the Rich" and "People of Europe Rise Up". A huge shampoo advertising banner attached to scaffolding at one end of the plaza has been covered up with slogans.

Small groups gather seated on the ground, cross-legged, in circles, listening to speakers on megaphones organising different aspects of the protests, such as setting up local committees.

The movement, which goes under several names including "Real Democracy Now" or "M-15" for the day it started, 15 May, has published a list of demands.

They include everything from shutting down all nuclear power plants to changes in foreclosure laws to allow homeowners to turn their property over to the bank and have the entire mortgage cancelled.

Many Spaniards are paying off mortgages worth more than their homes, after a housing bubble burst in 2008.

A man on stilts and a group of Italian women in pink - with bunny ears - who said they were going to a party added a circus atmosphere to the scene.

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But organisers say the situation is serious. "We've been cheated. The politicians try to sell us an economic crisis while they get benefits and fly in first class," said Elisabeth Palencia, a 28-year-old social worker.

The protesters are making efforts to keep the movement from digressing into a big beer-drinking bash. Signs ask protesters to think about the revolution rather than drink beer. Crowd co-ordinators wear reflective vests demanding "respect".

Over a week the protesters have set up a food bank with donated ham and paella, two infirmaries, a child-care tent and portable toilets. One tent had a table with computers.

Many families are coming to visit the protests and join in.

"People are here defending what they think. Even though they know they won't get anything, they maintain their beliefs," said Diego, a 12-year-old who was visiting the square with his mother and sister.

In numbers

21.3 per cent of Spaniards are unemployed nationally

40 per cent unemployment among those 25 and under, more than double the European Union average

4.9 million people are out of work

1.3 per cent growth forecast for 2011

8,116 councils and 13 of 17 regional governments are voted on this weekend