Tens of thousands march to support Spanish anti-austerity party

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Madrid on Saturday (above) in support of new anti-austerity party Podemos, a week after Greece elected its hard-left ally Syriza. -- PHOTO: AFP
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Madrid on Saturday (above) in support of new anti-austerity party Podemos, a week after Greece elected its hard-left ally Syriza. -- PHOTO: AFP

MADRID (AFP) - Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Madrid on Saturday in support of new anti-austerity party Podemos, a week after Greece elected its hard-left ally Syriza.

With the party topping opinion polls in the run up to elections later this year, protesters chanted "Yes we can!" as they made their way from Madrid city hall to the central Puerta del Sol square.

Many waved blue and white Greek flags and red and white Syriza flags or held signs reading "The change is now" and "Together we can".

Podemos, which means "We Can", was formed just a year ago, but produced a major shock by winning five seats in elections for the European Parliament in May.

"The wind of change is starting to blow in Europe," Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias said in both Greek and Spanish at the start of his address to the crowd at the end of the march.

"We dream but we take our dream seriously. More has been done in Greece in six days than many governments did in years."

Syriza beat mainstream Greek parties by pledging to end austerity and corruption, as Podemos aims to do in Spain's general election due in November.

Iglesias, a 36-year-old pony-tailed former university professor, appeared alongside Syriza's Alexis Tsipras, now Greece's prime minister, to publicly support him during his campaign.

Podemos wants to prevent profitable companies from firing people, promote a fully state-controlled health care system and enact a "significant" minimum-wage hike.

'STOP FOOLING US'

The party has struck a chord with Spaniards enraged by a string of corruption scandals, as well as public spending cuts imposed by the conservative ruling party and previously by the Socialists after the economic crisis erupted in 2008.

"There are many people that agree with the need for change. Enough already with stealing - that the corrupt take everything and we can't do anything," said Dori Sanchez, 23, an unemployed teacher who came from Monover in southeastern Spain for the rally.

Podemos said 260 buses brought supporters to the capital from across Spain for the "March for Change", while hundreds of locals signed on to host travellers.

"I want real change, that they stop fooling us," said Blanca Salazar, 53, a geriatric aide who came by car from the northern city of Bilbao with her husband and nephews.

Spain has now officially exited recession - the country's economy grew by 1.4 per cent last year, according to provisional data released Friday - but nearly one in four workers is still unemployed.

Salaries for many people have dropped and the number of workers on low-paid short-term contracts has soared.

Podemos has overtaken the mainstream opposition Socialist Party in several opinion polls, and in some has topped the list ahead of the conservative ruling People's Party (PP).

The Socialists and the PP have ruled Spain alternately since the country returned to democracy after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has warned Spaniards not to "play Russian roulette" by supporting Podemos, which he said "promises the moon and the sun" but will not deliver.

Speaking in Barcelona as the rally was taking place, Rajoy said radicalism was "unfortunately very much in fashion in our country" without mentioning Podemos directly.

"I don't accept the gloomy Spain which some want to portray because they think that by doing so they will replace those who are governing and have had to face the most difficult crisis in decades. They will not succeed," he added.

Critics of Podemos have accused it of having links to Venezuela's left-wing leaders and alleged fiscal irregularities by some of its top members. The party's leaders have promised to publish their tax returns to dispel the allegations.