MADRID Thousands of Spaniards filled city squares and camped out across the country to protest against government austerity before regional elections on Sunday which are likely to deal a blow to the Socialist government.
In the first major election since the government passed huge spending cuts and unpopular reforms, some voters will have to pick their way through plazas littered with protesters' tents and makeshift beds to reach polling stations.
Demonstrations are forbidden in Spain on election days and the preceding 24 hours but the government has not sent in police to enforce the ban, fearing violence after a week of peaceful protest.
Tens of thousands of protesters have daily joined those camped out for the past week. An estimated 30,000 were on Madrid's Puerta del Sol plaza on Saturday night, demonstrating against the government's handling of an economic crisis which broke out in 2008.
"We need a change and I'm not surprised people have risen up, albeit belatedly," said one of the protesters, 38-year-old Robert, who works for an advertising production company.
Robert had brought along his three-month-old daughter "so she can start learning young", he said.
By late on Saturday night, the protesters had not decided whether to continue the demonstrations after the elections.
The ruling Socialists, who have imposed deep spending cuts while unemployment has soared to 21.3 percent, are expected to suffer major losses in the elections for 8,116 city councils and 13 out of 17 regional governments.
Analysts doubt the demonstrations will change the result of Sunday's vote which will be followed by national elections next March when the opposition centre-right Popular Party (PP) is expected to do well.
The demonstrations have attracted Spaniards of all ages but the bulk have been young people who have been hit especially hard hit by the crisis. Almost half of 18-25 year-old Spaniards are out of work, more than double the European Union average.
Protesters also gathered in Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, Bilbao and other cities, urging people not to vote for either of Spain's two main parties, the Socialists or the PP.
After the euro zone debt crisis forced Greece, and later Ireland and Portugal, to take bailouts, Spain implemented a round of measures to tackle a huge public deficit and persuade financial markets that it has the budget under control.
While the austerity has reduced the risk that the euro zone's fourth largest economy will also need an international rescue, it has angered Spaniards who are expected deliver the Socialists a drubbing at the regional elections.
However, the market pressure means that Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is likely to continue with the restrictive and unpopular economic policies.
"Unless the government wants to run the risk of another episode of financial distress and the debt spreads sky rocketing again, it will have to implement another austerity package before the next elections," analyst at Madrid's IE business school Fernando Fernandez said.
(Writing by Paul Day; editing by David Stamp)