Portuguese and Spanish march as anger over tax hikes grows
LISBON (Reuters) - Over 150,000 Portuguese marched on Saturday against planned tax hikes that have shattered the consensus behind austerity imposed by an EU/IMF bailout, and tens of thousands more marched in Spain, seen as the next country needing to be bailed out.
The rallies in Portugal were mostly incident-free, but a young protester of about 20 was taken to hospital with burns after an attempted self-immolation during the protests in the northern town of Aveiro. RTP television quoted firemen as saying his life was not in danger.
Organized via the Internet, the rallies brought together Portuguese from all walks of life, chanting: "Out of here! IMF is hunger and misery!" and calling on the centre-right government to resign.
"Stop this government before it halts the country!" read one placard in Lisbon, where more than 100,000 crammed the main Republica thoroughfare and nearby streets, marching past IMF offices cordoned off by riot police. Some threw tomatoes and bottles at the building.
The rally ended at the vast Square of Spain near the Spanish embassy to express solidarity with protesters across the border in Spain after tens of thousands rallied in Madrid earlier on Saturday against spending cuts and tax rises.
A huge rally was held in Porto and smaller ones in other cities and towns.
"People are fed up with being robbed by this government's policy, which now threatens to strangle us," said bank worker Joao Pascual, 56, marching in Lisbon.
Andre Pestana, a 35-year-old unemployed teacher, said: "It's time to say enough to robbery and lies. The government has failed on all its promises ... I hope this rally is the first step in the process of changing things."
Tax hikes and spending cuts imposed since last year's bailout have contributed to record unemployment above 15 percent and pushed the economy into its worst recession since the 1970s.
On Thursday, the main opposition Socialists threatened to end cross-party backing for the 78-billion-euro bailout by voting against the 2013 draft budget unless the government drops its planned increase in the social security levy for all workers to 18 percent from 11 percent.
Broad political consensus behind austerity had until now differentiated Portugal from other euro zone strugglers like Greece, the scene of frequent unrest over austerity.
The government will not present the draft budget until mid-October and many protesters said they hoped the administration would rethink its policy.
Two opinion polls, including one by Eurosondagem pollsters published on Saturday, have shown support for the ruling centre-right Social Democrats falling behind the Socialists for the first time since the June 2011 election.
There are also signs of tensions within the ruling coalition that includes the rightist CDS-PP party.
Expresso weekly newspaper on Saturday quoted CDS-PP leader and Foreign Minister Paulo Portas as saying: "I will not throw the country into an irresponsible political crisis, nor will I strip the CDS of its identity".
President Anibal Cavaco Silva has called a meeting of his consultative State Council for next Friday. Although the president's role is largely ceremonial, he can veto bills including the budget and also act as mediator between the government and opposition.
Many of the banners carried by protesters called on the president to intervene and block the tax hike.
Criticism of the tax hikes grew louder this week after Portugal's lenders agreed on Tuesday to relax the country's fiscal goals under the bailout.
In Spain, teachers, nurses and social services workers thronged the capital's central Plaza Colon a day after Madrid said it would present new economic reforms at the end of September likely to contain more austerity measures.
One in four is out of work in Spain and it is mired in its second recession in three years.
The cuts are seen as a precursor to an economic program which Spain will have to implement in return for receiving support from euro zone rescue funds and the European Central Bank to help lower its borrowing costs.
(Additional reporting by Miguel Pereira in Lisbon and Sonya Dowsett in Madrid; editing by Andrew Roche)