Spanish protesters furious over soaring unemployment remained camped in a Madrid square Saturday after all-night festivities in defiance of a 48-hour ban ahead of local elections.
Some 25,000 people, according to Spanish media, crammed the central Puerta del Sol Square and surrounding streets late on Friday to stage a silent protest and then erupted in whistles and cheers of joy as the ban, ordered by Spain's election commission, took effect at midnight.
"Now we are all illegal" and "The people united will never be defeated," were among the chants of the protesters. Thousands remained until the early hours of Saturday amid a party atmosphere in the vast square in the heart of city's historic old town.
But by morning only a few hundred were camped in tents or under cardboard boxes under the blue tarpaulins that cover much of the square. Dozens however began leaving the site with their sleeping bags or mattresses, as cleaners tried to clear up the mess left behind.
Spain's leading daily El País said around 60,000 people took part in nationwide protests during the night. Apart from Madrid, the largest gatherings were in Valencia, where 10,000 took part, in Malaga, with 7,000, and in Barcelona, where some 6,000 turned out. Smaller demonstrations also took place in Granada, Seville, Almería, Cádiz, Santander, Bilbao, San Sebastian and La Coruña. No major incidents were reported and police did not intervene.
Spain's electoral commission late on Thursday declared that protests planned for Saturday and for Sunday were illegal as they "go beyond the constitutionally guaranteed right to demonstrate."
Saturday is by law "a day of reflection" ahead of the local elections, meaning political activity is barred. But organisers of the spearhead protest in Madrid had vowed to defy the ban. Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said Friday that police "will enforce the law" against the protesters but "in a proportional manner."
But El Pais quoted government sources as saying police will only intervene if there is violence.
"The fact that the gatherings are banned is not enough reason for the police to act" against the demonstrators, the centre-left paper said on its website.
Thousands of people have massed in city centres across the country in a swelling movement that began 15 May, the biggest spontaneous protests since the property bubble exploded in 2008 and plunged Spain into a recession from which it only emerged this year.
Calling for "Real Democracy Now," the protests, popularly known as M-15, were called to condemn Spain's soaring unemployment, economic crisis, politicians in general, and corruption.
"From Tahrir to Madrid to the world, world revolution," said one of the placards in Madrid, referring to Tahrir Square in Cairo which was the focal point of the Egyptian revolution earlier this year.
Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose Socialist Party is facing a crushing defeat in Sunday's polls, on Friday voiced sympathy for the protesters, saying they were reacting to unemployment and the economic crisis "in a peaceful manner."
Spain's jobless rate hit 21.19 percent in the first quarter of this year, the highest in the industrialised world. For under-25s, the jobless rate in February was 44.6 percent.
Even before the protests, polls forecast devastating losses for the Socialists as voters take revenge for the destruction of millions of jobs and painful spending cuts, including to state salaries.
More than 34 million people are eligible to vote Sunday, choosing 8,116 mayors, 68,400 town councillors and 824 members of regional parliaments for 13 of the 17 semi-autonomous regions.
Polls in El País and El Mundo predicted the Socialists would lose control of strongholds such as Barcelona, Seville and the Castilla-La Mancha region.