Spain PM cagey on breaking up banned protests

Spain's national electoral commission declared protest rallies convened for Saturday illegal, but the prime minister on Friday avoided saying whether he will order police to break up crowds of mainly young people angry over their bleak economic future.

The commission issued its order Thursday night as thousands of people demonstrated for a fourth straight night in central Madrid and dozens of other Spanish cities over the country's economic crisis and political parties they see as inept, corrupt and indifferent to everyday people struggling to get by.

Municipal and regional elections are scheduled for Sunday, and the protesters have said they will rally on Saturday and after that in a movement they say is only just gaining momentum.

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 a radio interview Friday, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said he will play things by ear as to whether he will 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. "What I can say is that the government and Interior Ministry will behave well, will behave correctly and will behave with intelligence."

Pressed as to what would happen if protesters do in fact defy the ban, Zapatero repeated the same answer, almost word for word.

In Spain, rallies that urge people to vote one way or the other are banned the day before an election. These voting-day eves are called "days of reflection." The 13-member national election commission cited this rule in saying there could be no protests Saturday or on election day Sunday.

But it was deeply divided, with the ban approved 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.

"On days of reflection and voting, our electoral legislation prohibits any act of propaganda or electoral campaigning," the commission wrote.

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

Zapatero urged protesters to respect Saturday as a day of reflection and said he was sensitive to the worries of young people facing a jobless rate of more than 40 percent. But he said Spain has come through economic crises before and urged Spaniards not to lose hope, although he recognized it will take years to bring the jobless rate down significantly.

With the protesters insisting they are fed up with Spain's political system in general, Zapatero said he felt like the main target of their ire.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, as prime minister I must feel like the one who is most singled out," Zapatero said.