Political divisions deepen as Spain battles coronavirus

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In some countries, the worst pandemic for more than a century may have pushed political rivalries to one side. Not so in Spain, one of the nations worst hit by the coronavirus outbreak, with more than 100,000 confirmed cases and over 9,000 dead.

The government’s official slogan is “United, we will stop this virus”. But, as the death toll mounts and Madrid uses emergency powers to issue economic diktats, the politics of confrontation has returned with a vengeance.

This week the principal opposition grouping, the centre-right People’s party, labelled prime minister Pedro Sánchez a liar and one PP regional leader even accused the government of issuing orders to hide the real death count. 

The far-right Vox — the third-biggest force in congress — has called for Mr Sánchez’s resignation and replacement by a government of national unity. Meanwhile, the pro-independence administration of Catalonia upbraids the government for its alleged incompetence and parsimony on an almost daily basis. 

“Here, instead of closing ranks and looking for the maximum possible consensus, the politicians are opting for a bitter fight — lucha dura,” said Astrid Barrio, a politics professor at the University of Valencia. “I am not sure citizens are going to appreciate that when the obvious priority is the health emergency.”

Some blame the tensions on the significant levels of polarisation in a country where people turned to radical solutions in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and where far-left and Catalan nationalist votes helped bring Mr Sánchez to power, to the enduring disgust of the right.

Mortuary employees in Madrid wear face masks as they prepare for the funeral of a coronavirus victim © Oscar Del Pozo/AFP/Getty

Others fault the alleged mismanagement of his new Socialist-led coalition, which has barely been three months in office.

While the country has united in applause for health workers at eight o’clock every evening, underlying tensions have been exposed at other times — such as when different groups of Spaniards have banged pots and pans in protest at the government or, on one occasion, against the royal family.

Whatever their cause, the fissures now re-emerging highlight the scale of the challenge if the country is to overcome the health crisis and the economic reckoning that many fear is to come.

To impose Spain’s two-and-a-half week old lockdown, Mr Sánchez’s minority coalition assumed sweeping emergency powers, and won the backing of opposition parties in parliament to do so. 

The government says its steps are having an impact — reducing the daily increase in confirmed cases in percentage terms and the numbers of new entrants to intensive care wards. It adds that it has authorised more than €4bn in funds to fight the disease, much of which has gone to Spain’s regions.

Residents in Pamplona bang saucepans in protest © Villar Lopez/EPA/Shutterstock

But even as they voted through the emergency powers, and their subsequent prolongation, Spain’s rightwing opposition MPs voiced misgivings about Mr Sánchez and his allies’ management of the crisis. 

Now those recriminations have taken centre stage as the death count regularly tops 800 a day and the government takes temporary measures, such as prohibiting businesses hit by the crisis from sacking employees and banning “non-essential” work while requiring companies still to pay salaries.

Pablo Casado, leader of the PP, accuses Mr Sánchez of lying or hiding information, since the prime minister opposed a ban on non-essential work last week.

Spain’s biggest employers confederation has also inveighed against the government for that ban, which it says risks the “massive destruction” of jobs and businesses “in a definitive manner”.

Nacho Torreblanca of the European Council on Foreign Relations faults Mr Sánchez for failing to follow up his calls for national unity with the appropriate level of consultation with business and other political parties.

Pablo Casado, pictured, leader of the PP, has accused Mr Sánchez of lying or hiding information © Mariscal/AFP /Getty

“It is clear that, after a certain point, the government had to shut the country down,” he said. “But the manner in which Sánchez did it — making the decision, then getting cabinet approval and then writing the decree — that only increases the polarisation.”

The government fiercely contests such arguments, noting calls in previous days for a tougher clampdown on economic activity from centre-right leaders in regions such as Madrid and Murcia, as well as the separatist administration in Catalonia.

“People would not understand why the PP, which has spent weeks asking for a tougher lockdown and a paralysis of industrial activity, will not support it at this time,” said María Jesús Montero, budget minister and government spokeswoman. The measure will have to be approved by parliament in the next month.

Within the government, one of the champions of an industrial shutdown was Pablo Iglesias, leader of the leftwing Podemos and deputy prime minister, who argued for such a measure for days, despite the reservations of the economics ministries.

On Sunday Mr Iglesias tweeted a reminder that according to the Spanish constitution, “the country’s entire wealth . . . is subordinated to the general interest”. That led his critics to warn of nationalisations in the offing. Under Spain’s current emergency rules, the government has the power to requisition or command private companies.

“You can see how this could be October 1917 in the eyes of Podemos, the moment they can make a fundamental change in how the economy works,” said Mr Torreblanca.

Podemos counters that there is a world of difference between learning from the inadequacies of the government response to the financial crisis a decade ago and turning Spain into a Venezuela on the Mediterranean. 

Editor’s note

The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.

“The era of neoliberal solutions, of austerity and putting the emphasis on bank bailouts is over,” said a Podemos official. “It is more important to save lives than to save businesses.”

At a press appearance this week, Mr Iglesias said the coalition hoped soon to announce plans for a living minimum income. But he also acknowledged unspecified errors and said the government’s duty was “to reach out its hand to the opposition” for constructive suggestions, adding: “The citizens will judge the roles that everyone played.”

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