Voters Punish Zapatero Spain's 'Lost Generation' Vows to Fight On

Mass demonstrations and a historic defeat for the ruling Socialists in regional and local elections this Sunday have put unprecedented pressure on Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. He has refused to bring forward national elections, but members of the young protest movement vow they won't give up until they're heard.

Demonstrators raise their hand to vote in favor of continued protests at their campout in Madrid's Puerta del Sol.

Demonstrators raise their hand to vote in favor of continued protests at their campout in Madrid's Puerta del Sol.

Spain's youth have often been accused of laziness, but over the last week tens of thousands of disillusioned young people took the initiative to camp out in squares across the nation to protest crippling unemployment, corruption and tough austerity measures by the government after the economic crisis. Activists also defied a ban on protests set last Friday by the country's Central Electoral Board, which feared they could disrupt regional and local elections.

But angry voters still managed to make themselves heard on Sunday amid the ongoing demonstrations, toppling Zapatero's Socialists (PSOE) in favor of the center-right opposition People's Party (PP) in most of the 8,000 municipal and 13 regional elections, even in the PSOE's traditional strongholds. While Zapatero admitted the results were the penalty for Spain's dismal economy and high unemployment, he declined to bring forward the general election, which must be held before March 2012.

"It is justifiable that the Socialist Party was punished at the ballot boxes today. We accept and understand that," said the prime minister, who had already announced he would not run for a third term in the next national poll.

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Photo Gallery: Spanish Protests Continue
Protesters Pledge Perseverance

Though Zapatero failed to acknowledge the mass protests in the run-up to the election in his remarks at the PSOE's headquarters, their shadow is unlikely to fade quickly. Organizers have pledged to continue for at least another week.

One demonstrator, 33-year-old Oscar Morales Padro, has been looking for a steady job since finishing his psychology degree. "In Spain you can forget it," he said. Padro is like millions of other young Spaniards who have taken to the streets in the last week. Well-educated, but with no hope of finding a job -- a member of the so-called " Lost Generation."

Their movement symbolizes the mounting frustration over unemployment in Spain -- 45 percent among those under 25, and 21 percent overall, the highest rate in the European Union. Many allege the situation has worsened due to government austerity measures to reduce the national deficit and prevent a Greece-style EU and International Monetary Fund bailout.

Discontent is so widespread that even Spaniards living abroad have set up protest camps outside the country's embassies in Berlin, Paris, London and Amsterdam. Most of the events at home and abroad have been organized online by the Real Democracy Now movement, which became a household name virtually overnight after calling for demonstrations in around 50 cities last Sunday.

"I hope that the movement hangs on for a long while still," said 35-year-old Xiomara Cantera Arranz on Sunday after voting, though she hadn't yet taken part in any of the protests. Unlike many of the demonstrators, she has a job.

But it remains uncertain what will become of the protest movement. People still camped out at Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square -- where gatherings have been compared to those at Cairo's Tahrir Square earlier this year -- seem determined to stay. Activists voted to continue demonstrating until May 29.

"I'm very proud of what's going on here," said Carolina Smith de la Fuente, who has been at the square every day since demonstrations began. When the number of activists began to swell on Sunday despite the ban on demonstrations, many wearing t-shirts that read "Spanish Revolution," de la Fuente nearly wept, she said.

But how long will it go on? "Until they listen to us," another woman said.

kla -- with wire reports


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