Spanish union leaders demanded Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy test support for his budget cuts in a referendum as 65,000 protesters took to the streets of Madrid.
Comisiones Obreras General Secretary Ignacio Fernandez Toxo called on Rajoy to put his austerity policies to Spanish voters after the premier broke election pledges.
“It’s time to give a voice to the people again,” Toxo told the demonstration as protesters blocked the center of Madrid. “With the support of the people we will take this as far as the government wants us to. This doesn’t end here.”
Rajoy is facing a growing backlash in Spain as he tries to push through sufficient budget cuts to meet the European Union’s deficit targets. His opponents say his policies, which have included cuts in education and health spending as well as a tax amnesty on savings held offshore, have hurt poorer Spaniards while protecting the elite.
“The government is aware it is asking Spanish society for sacrifices, but those sacrifices are absolutely unavoidable in order to correct the situation,” Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said at a press conference in Nicosia, Cyprus, where he met euro-area finance ministers yesterday.
Flag-waving demonstrators began setting off firecrackers just after dawn in the Spanish capital and by midday they were thronging the streets around Plaza Colon in the center of the city. A spokesman for the national government’s Madrid delegation, who asked not to be identified in line with official policy, said the number of demonstrators reached 65,000 at the height of the protest.
Today’s demonstration followed a march in Barcelona on Sept. 11 when more than a million people called for Catalonia, the biggest regional economy, to be granted independence from Spain. The region requested a 5 billion-euro ($6.6 billion) bailout package last month and regional leader Artur Mas is demanding the region be allowed to keep more of the tax revenue it generates.
“This chamber should take note of what happened yesterday in Barcelona and what will probably happen in Madrid this Saturday,” opposition leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told the Spanish Parliament on Sept. 12. “We are seeing increasing territorial and social tensions that this chamber cannot ignore.”
The government has introduced more than 100 billion euros of tax increases and spending cuts as it struggles to meet its deficit target for this year. De Guindos told his European colleagues yesterday that Spain is ready to make more reductions if necessary.
Rajoy is trying to cool voters’ anger over his decision to break pledges he made before November’s general election. In a television interview last week he said voters had given him a mandate to boost growth and create jobs and he hoped he could reverse tax increases before the 2015 election.
“Those groups, men and women, who voted for the PP have a right to know why they abandoned the program on which they ran,” Toxo said.