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Spain leader vows hard line as hundreds of thousands protest austerity

Fed-up Spaniards took to the streets in a national strike Thursday, as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy struggled against waning political support for his unpopular economic policies. 

By Correspondent / March 29, 2012

Demonstrators protest against labor reform in central Barcelona during a general strike in Spain, March 29.

Gustau Nacarino/Reuters

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Madrid, Spain

Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards marched Thursday in the first general strike against strangling austerity, only the most recent challenge to the new conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy fending off resistance from all sides.

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“We can’t take this anymore,” says Eva Cañamares, a station manager in Madrid’s subway system. Her 11 and 9-year old children were passing out union flags beside her in the central Puerta del Sol plaza, where tens of thousands chanted against government economic policies.

“I’m here for my children. They are taking away all our rights and this also affects them,” Mrs. Cañamares says, echoing the strike’s slogans. “They want to do away with everything.… The government just wants to take away everything and not even negotiate."

By early evening, there were more than a dozen injuries, dozens of arrests, and violent clashes reported throughout Spain, but these were the exceptions to the mostly peaceful march.

The strike was long expected and almost certainly won’t be the last. Many stores in Madrid shut down and transport was limited to 30 percent of its usual service, causing chaos. But support for the strike was also far from universal.

Still, patience is thinning after more than three years of budget cuts and ever-growing unemployment. It will likely be at least two more years before the economy hits bottom. 

And the austerity pains are unlikely to abate anytime soon. Despite Spain's contracting economy amid years of austerity, the European Union has been emphatic that it will not budge on its order that Spain cut its deficit to 3 percent of GDP by 2013, although it has been flexible about targets for this year.

The political costs of being in government

But toeing the EU line now comes with political costs. Mr. Rajoy, whose party handily won national elections in November, is losing political support on several fronts.

In March 25 regional elections, his Popular Party failed to boot the Socialists from power in their historic bastion of Andalucia, Spain’s most populated and second-biggest autonomous region. Polls suggested a landslide victory from Rajoy’s party and the government went as far as defying Europe by delaying its 2012 budget proposal and its most severe cuts until after the vote to secure the win.

In the end, though, most of the votes the Socialists lost went to other parties, exposing the political cost of the economic reforms Rajoy's party instituted in its first 100 days of government.

Rajoy is also facing internal dissent from the more conservative wing of his party, which is demanding even more austerity, on top of a reversal of the hallmark liberal social policies of the previous government, including abortion and education reform.

But the government, through Labor Minister Fátima Báñez, made it clear it will not backtrack just hours before tomorrow's 2012 budget presentation, when it will reveal the details of its budget.  

“The reformist path is unstoppable,” Ms. Báñez said. The party already won an absolute majority in Parliament, “the home of dialogue and negotiation,” she said, suggesting the government has no need to negotiate.

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