Right leads mass protest against Spanish govt in Madrid

Thousands of people protested in Madrid Saturday against Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftist government in a rally held in a key election year in Spain that was backed by far-right party Vox.

Participants waved red and yellow Spanish flags and called on Sanchez to resign. Some held up signs with a photo of the Socialist premier calling him a "traitor".

Around 30,000 people gathered in Madrid's Cibeles Square for the rally, according to the central government's delegation in the Spanish capital. Organisers said some 700,000 people had taken part.

The protest was called by dozens of mainly right-leaning civil society groups and backed by conservative parties including the main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) and Vox.

The right is angered by the government's decision to abolish the crime of sedition, of which nine separatist leaders were convicted over their role in the Catalonia region's abortive secession bid in 2017.

It was replaced with an offence carrying a lower prison sentence.

Conservatives are also angered by a flagship law against sexual violence that toughened penalties for rape but eased sentences for other sexual crimes.

This has set some convicts free after their jail terms were reduced.

Speaking to reporters at the start of the rally, Vox leader Santiago Abascal denounced "the worst government in history" which "has divided Spaniards and freed rapists and coup leaders".

"We need a permanent and massive mobilisation until the autocrat Pedro Sanchez is expelled from power," he added.

- Conservative poll edge -

Retired accountant Antonio Orduna, 67, told AFP said he was upset the government was "letting those who want to break up Spain off the hook."

He cited the abolishment of the crime of sedition and Sanchez's 2021 decision to  pardon the Catalan separatists initially sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison for their role in the failed secession bid.

Catalonia's attempt to become an independent state sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades, with then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several others fleeing abroad to escape prosecution.

PP leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo, who has tried to push the formation to the centre since becoming its leader in April, was not at the rally but encouraged party supporters to attend.

Most polls suggest the PP would win a general election expected at the end of the year but would need the support of Vox to govern.

Before that, Spain will vote in May in regional and local elections.

One of the main dilemmas facing Feijoo is whether to continue pursuing political alliances with Vox as it has in some region or to freeze them out to try to widen the PP's base.

Vox splintered off from the PP in 2013 and is now the third-largest force in parliament.

- 'Before the abyss' -

Lacking a parliamentary majority, Sanchez's government has been forced since its formation to negotiate with Basque and Catalan separatists to pass bills, which has angered many on the right.

Conservatives accuse Sanchez of having eliminated the crime of sedition to assure the continued support of Catalan pro-independence party ERC in tight parliamentary votes.

"All he cares about is remaining in power," said Rosa Torosio, a 44-year-old housewife at the rally.

The government argues sedition is an antiquated offence that needed to be replaced with one better aligned to European norms.

Sanchez defended his record, telling a Socialist party rally in the northern city of Valladolid on Saturday his government had to take steps to defuse the conflict in Catalonia.

The separatist bid which happened under the watch of the previous PP government had left Spain standing "before the abyss," he added.

Sanchez also recalled that his government has ramped up social spending to help Spaniards deal with high inflation, for example by increasing pensions and civil servant salaries.

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