Spain’s coronavirus truce is over

As the prime minister announces the country has reached the peak of coronavirus infections, the political gloves are coming off.



Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez speaks at the Congress | Pool photo by EFE via Getty Images

The days of warm words about cross-party loyalty and collective responsibility are over in Spain. As the lockdown lengthens, the opposition is once again gunning for the prime minister.

During the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, things were so serious it was nearly impossible for the opposition to slam the leftist coalition government without being accused of disloyalty. But with the lockdown extended from two weeks to at least six, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s political rivals are sharpening their claws.

At a highly charged parliamentary session on Thursday, Sánchez announced Spain had “reached and overcome” the peak of coronavirus infections, but warned he would most likely have to request a third extension of the lockdown, until mid-May. More than 15,000 people had died of COVID-19 in the country as of Thursday.

“After weeks of fighting ... we see how the fire that unleashed the pandemic is starting to come under control,” Sánchez told Congress. “The data, with all the prudence that we can express, are encouraging.”

The government managed to get the support of most MPs to extend the lockdown and the state of alarm to April 26, in a vote on Thursday evening (there were 270 votes in favor, 54 against and 25 abstentions). But the opposition didn’t hold back in its criticism. The center-right Popular Party, the second-largest party in Congress, accused Sánchez of responding too late to the crisis and “lying” about problems with the supply of testing kits and protective gear.

Sánchez's smaller temporary allies are not supporting his emergency decrees that put in place economic measures.

“You showed today that you don’t deserve the support of the opposition,” PP leader Pablo Casado said. “Your lies, arrogance and incompetence are an explosive cocktail for Spain.”

Luis Tejero, head of public affairs at the consultancy Grayling in Madrid, said the PP and the liberal Ciudadanos are trying to strike a balance between showing loyalty to the government at such a difficult time and representing millions of voters — including many business leaders — who disapprove of the government’s response.

“It’s a difficult balance to maintain for so many consecutive weeks, especially in a context of polarization like the current one,” he said. “We must bear in mind that Spain has just left two successive general elections behind. The new legislature had only just started [when the crisis hit], so there wasn't time to moderate the confrontational tone typical of electoral campaigns.”

Far-right pressure

The change in tone is most clearly seen with the far-right Vox, which on Thursday became the only major party to vote down Sánchez’s request for a lockdown extension.

Last weekend, when Sánchez reached out to all opposition leaders to discuss the next steps against the coronavirus, Vox leader Santiago Abascal refused to speak with him and reiterated his calls for the prime minister’s resignation.

In a letter to La Moncloa, the prime minister’s official residence, Abascal gave 10 reasons why he refused to speak with the prime minister, including that Sánchez had “unilaterally changed the conditions of the state of alarm” by toughening its rules to comply with “what the separatists and the far left asked him to do.” Abascal accused the government of putting Spain on “the edge of a criminal dictatorship.”

Vox is attacking on other fronts. The party has announced its intention to take the government to the Constitutional Court over its decision to declare a state of alarm. Vox argues Sánchez should have declared the more stringent “state of exception” in order to curtail some fundamental rights such as freedom of movement.

And after Abascal and other Vox MPs recovered from COVID-19, the party threatened to send all 52 of its MPs to Thursday’s parliamentary session, going against an agreement to limit how many lawmakers are present in the chamber. He eventually backed down.

“Santiago Abascal’s party does not seem to have any intention to show loyalty to the government in these circumstances,” said Tejero. “Its strategy consists of going against the tide and speaking louder and tougher than the rest. They speak to the discontent of certain social groups in this convulsive moment.”

Dragged rightward

Vox’s strategy is having an effect on the PP’s style. With 88 MPs out of 350, the PP is still the largest opposition party but it is feeling pressure from a far-right party that just five months ago increased its representation from 24 to 52 MPs.

“For too long the PP has been used to not having any relevant competitor in its ideological space. For over 20 years [former PP leaders] José María Aznar and Mariano Rajoy managed to accumulate between 35 and 45 percent of the votes — an unimaginable share nowadays,” said Tejero.

Soldiers deployed at Atocha railway station in Madrid | Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images

The PP’s dilemma could be seen last week when it announced that up to 45 MPs would turn up at Thursday’s parliamentary session, arguing it was time for voters to see them. Following criticism from other parties, the PP sent just a handful of lawmakers.

The more restless the opposition gets, the bigger a problem it could be for Sánchez, whose smaller temporary allies, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), are not supporting his emergency decrees that put in place economic measures.

“Beyond the noise and propaganda, the truth is that the government is taking its decrees forward thanks to the support of the opposition because some of its partners such as ERC abstained,” said Rubén Rodríguez, partner at MAS Consulting.

A new Moncloa Pact?

Leaders across Europe are likely to face a similar dilemma to those in Spain.

The main difference in the case of Spain is that it has less experience building alliances among rival political parties. The only exceptions were the Moncloa Pacts reached by all major parties to address inflation and unemployment during the transition to democracy in the late 1970s.

That is exactly the type of consensus Sánchez is now trying to replicate. In his address to Congress on Thursday, the prime minister called seven times for loyalty, and invited opposition leaders, regional presidents and union representatives to a meeting next week to agree a deal to revamp Spain’s economy once the pandemic is over. Vox has already said it’s unlikely to take part.

Sánchez will also need to sail through the electoral machinations that will emerge ahead of postponed regional elections in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia in the second half of the year.

On Thursday, the World Health Organization’s chief urged countries not to politicize the fight against coronavirus. “We should work across party lines, across religious lines,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We shouldn’t waste time pointing fingers. For now, the focus should be on fighting the virus. There are many unknowns, and we don’t know how it will behave in the future.”

Spain doesn’t seem to be taking notice.