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Tens of thousands of protesters defy ban in Spain

By Harold Heckle

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 20 2011 3:31 p.m. MDT

Demonstrators 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.

Emilio Morenatti, Associated Press

MADRID — Tens of thousands of protesters filled squares throughout Spain late Friday and said they would stay in defiance of a ban going into effect at midnight.

The government avoided saying that it would order police to break up the crowds.

Many people are angry over Spain's high unemployment rate and what they see as the national political parties' ineptitude in dealing with a deep economic crisis. Protesters built a camp in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square Sunday, a week ahead of nationwide elections. The camp has grown every day since, with other cities joining in.

Friday was the last day for candidates to campaign for the election for municipal and regional government positions nationwide. Citing the mandatory end of campaigning, the national election commission banned protests Saturday or on election day.

But with midnight looming, there were large gatherings of mainly young people in central Madrid and dozens of other Spanish cities.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero did not say whether he would 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 radio network. "What I can say is that the government and Interior Ministry will behave well, will behave correctly and will behave with intelligence."

Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba was also cagey about how the government would deal with the protesters, although he said the police would not act to make things worse.

Initially he said the government will "enforce the law," but he then toned down this stance, saying "The police are not going to resolve one problem by creating another."

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 Spain, rallies called to urge people to vote one way or another are typically banned the day before an election, called "days of reflection."

The election commission was deeply divided this time, and upheld the ban 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.

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

Daniel Woolls contributed to this report.

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