Thousands take to streets over Spanish austerity plan


THOUSANDS OF Spaniards converged on Madrid on Saturday to protest against the conservative government’s austerity drive and demand a referendum on future economic measures.

The demonstration reflects widespread anger at a wave of spending cuts and tax increases over recent months and it took place as the government of Mariano Rajoy considers whether to request a sovereign bailout from the European Union.

“All the cuts this government is introducing are hurting workers,” said Merche Ríos, who was at the protest. “I work in an old people’s home and I had my monthly wage cut by €200 just like that, because they cut my hours. The government isn’t doing what it said it was going to do.”

Estimates of the number of people who took part varied enormously, from a government figure of 65,000 to a labour union projection of over half a million. Left-leaning news website Público said “hundreds of thousands” were present.

Demonstrators marched into central Madrid’s Plaza de Colón from different points outside the city. They were divided into professions, with healthcare and education workers particularly visible. With increasing numbers of Spaniards fearing that the government will eventually make cuts to the pensions system, many of those also present were retired workers, such as José Solá.

“I’ve come from Catalonia, others have come from Murcia, Galicia, Navarra, the Basque Country, all over Spain,” he said. “People are here because of the cuts to areas such as health and education. And if on top of that they cut the little I receive for my pension, then I’m in real trouble.” While labour unions were heavily involved in supervising the event, so too was a recently formed organisation, the “Social Summit”, which includes about 200 groups including charities, pensioners, school parents and an array of professions.

Their opposition to government economic policy has been fuelled by a €65 billion austerity package announced earlier in the summer. Those measures included a VAT increase of three points to 21 per cent, which came into effect on September 1st. That followed a raft of earlier measures, as the government tries to slash the public deficit to 6.3 per cent of GDP this year, in line with EU targets.

Economy minister Luis de Guindos, who was meeting in Cyprus with his euro zone counterparts, insisted there was no alternative to austerity. “The sacrifices are absolutely unavoidable if we want to turn around this difficult situation and lay down the foundations for recovery,” he said.

With the pressure from Brussels to meet fiscal targets and the possibility of a sovereign rescue package on the horizon, the Spanish government looks unlikely to heed protesters’ demand for a referendum on economic policy.

Besides, Mr Rajoy has plenty of other issues to worry about in what is expected to be a torrid autumn.

Apart from facing the complexities of the mooted bailout, the government is scheduled to present the 2013 budget later this month, and further spending cuts contained in it would almost certainly provoke increased social unrest.

In addition, the governing Partido Popular is hoping to avoid disaster in October’s regional elections in Galicia and the Basque Country. Also, a campaign for Catalan independence has gained momentum, drawing hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets of Barcelona last week.