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As austerity bites hard, a once pliant Spain revolts

Spaniards initially accepted aggressive austerity as necessary, but tens of thousands are now turning out in the streets to protest measures they say have gone too far.

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Protesters shout slogans at the police during the fifth day of demonstrations against police brutality and educational cuts in central Valencia on Feb. 22.

Heino Kalis/Reuters

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After four days of daily protests, some violently dispersed, Spain is bracing for a cycle of social unrest against the harshest austerity measures in decades. At stake is not only Spain’s economic recovery, but that of the European Union.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of the conservative Popular Party, pled yesterday for calm and sacrifice after hundreds of thousands marched against his labor reform on Feb. 19. He insisted he has no intention of backtracking on steep budget cuts that have only begun to be introduced. Even on the campaign trail, Rajoy warned of pain to come – and his party was still elected.  

But while Spanish and European authorities say budget cuts are necessary, experts warn the Spanish measures could be too much, too fast. A population already on edge could be galvanized to action. Social instability in a country the size of Spain, especially in rejection of European Union-imposed policies, could spread to other countries in the eurozone facing angry publics.

“The government’s legitimacy could soon be questioned on the street," says Jaime Pastor, professor of political science and an expert on mass mobilizations at UNED, a university. “The ghost of Spain turning into the next Greece is still there. If the trend is for Spain to follow that model, the European crisis is going to get worse."

Labor says 'enough'

Spain, with a population of 43 million, has an unemployment rate of 23 percent, by far Europe’s highest – and it’s only expected to increase. Half of youth are jobless. The Central Bank expects a recession of 1.5 percent for 2012.

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