Tens of thousands of people from across Spain rallied in the capital on Saturday against punishing austerity measures enacted by the government.
Large anti-austerity protests also took place in neighboring Portugal. Demonstrators in Lisbon threw tomatoes and fireworks at the Portuguese headquarters of the IMF. Two protesters were arrested, but otherwise the rally was peaceful.
Spain is stuck in a double-dip recession, with unemployment close to 25 percent. The conservative government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has introduced stinging cuts and raised taxes in a bid to reduce the country’s deficit and to reassure investors and officials from the 17-nation eurozone.
The protesters in Madrid unfurled banners with slogans such as “Let’s go! They are ruining the country and we have to stop them.”
“This government’s policies are causing too much pain,” union chief Ignacio Fernandez Toxo said. “It’s a lie that there isn’t another way to restore the economy.”
The situation looks set to worsen in the coming weeks. At a meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Cyprus on Friday, Spain revealed it would present a new set of economic reforms by the end of the month. It is a move that raises expectations that Spain might soon ask for financial help.
The economic reform plan will be unveiled by Sept. 27 and it is expected to be the launch-pad to Spain’s tapping of a new European Central Bank (ECB) bond-buying plan.
Just before Saturday’s demonstration began, buses transporting protesters blocked several major roads in Madrid. The main organizers were Social Summit — an association of more than 150 organizations — alongside the Workers’ Commissions and General Workers trade unions.
The Spanish Interior Ministry’s regional office said it had expected more than 500,000 people to reach a central Madrid square, but later said that 65,000 had attended to listen to speeches by protest leaders.
Toxo called for a referendum on the government’s austerity and bailout plans, saying the measures were so different from the ruling Popular Party’s election pledges that Spaniards should have the right to express an opinion on them.
Rajoy was swept to power with a large majority in elections in November last year, having said: “I have no plans to raise taxes.”
The Madrid protest comes four days after another anti-government gathering in the northeastern city of Barcelona that attracted about 1.5 million demonstrators, according to police estimates.
“We’ve had our pay cut. We don’t get the firefighting training and equipment we need. There are more students and fewer teachers in our children’s classrooms and healthcare is also being cut,” firefighter Carlos Melgaves said, while marching among a group of about 50 firefighters. “We can’t take it anymore.”
Spanish Minister of the Economy Luis de Guindos said his government was aware it was asking citizens to make sacrifices.
“[They] are absolutely unavoidable if we are to correct the difficult economic climate we are experiencing,” he said in Cyprus, where Europe’s finance ministers were meeting on Saturday. “We are laying the foundations for a recovery.”
Rajoy has accepted a loan of up to 100 billion euros (US$131 billion) to help ailing banks which are reeling from a collapse of the country’s real-estate and construction industries. His government also has faced punishingly high interest rates while raising money on bond markets to keep the economy in liquidity.