MADRID – Thousands of people gathered in makeshift protest camps in Spain's principal cities on Thursday to denounce the nation's two main political parties as inept at dealing with the country's economic woes, including high unemployment.
The largest demonstration occurred in the heart of Madrid for a fourth straight day.
At the same time, the National Election Board of judges and academics was meeting in parliament to decide if the protest camps are legal and should be allowed to continue through regional elections in Spain on Sunday.
Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero decided on Thursday to support the demonstrators while he was out campaigning.
"It's a peaceful protest, it deserves our respect," Zapatero told a Socialist Party rally in northwest A Coruna. In a TV interview, he said politicians "must listen because there are reasons for the discontent."
The Take the Square protest group will continue the protests through election day "because we do not back any political party," said its spokesman, Santiago Roldan.
Spain is only now recovering, albeit very slowly, from nearly two years of recession, and its jobless rate has soared to a euro-zone high of 21.3 percent. Youth unemployment is more than 40 percent in Spain, and prospects for significant economic growth soon are slim.
Miguel Arrastia, 26, said in Madrid that protesters are angry that spending cuts and other austerity measures imposed to deal with Spain's deficit and other problems are making people suffer even more. He is an unemployed surveyor.
"This protest is a spontaneous thing, and I think it is happening at the right time because it is right before the elections and we are showing that no party is capable of dealing with this crisis," he said.
Arrastia said that recent pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East served as an inspiration — a reminder of what people working together can achieve.
"They were an influence because they gave us strength. Those people were able to stand up to dictators, so why can't we" take on a stagnant political system at home, Arrastia said.
The demonstrators in Spain have a range of complaints but are united behind the slogan of "Genuine Democracy Now."
One group of young people arrived at Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square with sleeping bags and wearing freshly printed T-shirts saying "Yes, we camp."
Ramon Cotarelo, a political science professor at Complutense University in Madrid, said the protests, which began last weekend, are the culmination of a mix of woes and other factors. He cited the economic crisis, contagion from the Arab countries, rapid-fire communications over the Internet, people being fed up with ineffective and sometimes corrupt politicians, and elections in which some candidates are in fact under formal investigation for corruption.
"Suddenly there is a spark and everything explodes," Cotarelo said.
Crowds have also gathered in central squares in Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao, Seville, Zaragoza and on the Canary Island of Tenerife, and have pledged to stay there until after the elections this weekend.
The Madrid electoral board banned the demonstration in the square Wednesday, saying it could influence the elections Sunday. But the ruling appeared to have the opposite effect and — spurred on by social media messages — thousands of people of all ages swarmed into the square, packing it by midnight. Some 500 riot police stood guard but did not intervene.
The final decision about the legality of the protests rests with the national election board.
The demonstrations, initially organized by students and unemployed and disaffected youths, are a spillover from countrywide demonstrations Sunday. They have triggered a lively debate throughout the country on how the crisis has been handled by the politicians and financial institutions.
Zapatero's governing Socialist party is tipped to suffer a resounding defeat in the elections. In turn, the leading conservative opposition Popular Party is expected to make huge gains.
General elections are not scheduled until 2012.
Ciaran Giles and Daniel Woolls contributed to this report.