MADRID — Pedro Sánchez had three clear (if daunting) objectives when he took office in January: find a solution to Spain’s territorial crisis while maintaining economic stability and managing a fragile parliamentary majority.
Coronavirus has made every one of those challenges more complicated. It has thrown the country into economic crisis, further polarized Spain’s already tribal politics and put several regions’ relationships with Madrid under strain.
Having claimed over 26,000 lives in Spain, the coronavirus now appears to be more under control and the country is embarking on a cautious, three-phase lifting of its tight lockdown. In order to coordinate both the lockdown and its easing, Sánchez introduced a state of emergency in mid-March, which he has asked Congress to extend every two weeks.
“In these eight weeks, Spain has proved itself to be more than the sum of its 47 million inhabitants,” the Socialist prime minister said on May 9, as he announced his intention to request yet another extension.
He also called for Spaniards to “maintain our unity so we can keep advancing.”
“The government has centralized all its decisions, presenting itself as the only manager of this crisis” — Lluís Orriols, political scientist
But the four parliamentary votes on the state of emergency demonstrate how difficult it has been for Sánchez to maintain political unity during the crisis. His first proposed extension received the backing of 321 lawmakers, dropping to 270 in the next vote, then 269, followed by 178 votes on May 6.
The fiercest criticism of Sánchez’s performance has come from the political right, particularly the far-right Vox and the main opposition Popular Party (PP). Vox has been demanding that the government resign and has filed a lawsuit against the use of the state of emergency before the Constitutional Court. The PP, meanwhile, has accused Sánchez of hiding the real number of deaths caused by the virus and of lurching toward Venezuela-style populism with his economic policies.
In one parliamentary debate, PP leader Pablo Casado told Sánchez: “Your government is the Titanic, but don’t expect us to be your orchestra.”
Such politicization of the crisis contrasts with neighboring Portugal, where Prime Minister António Costa has enjoyed warm support from the opposition.
The hostility can also be seen out on the street, where the daily applause for Spain’s health care workers from balconies and windows is followed, in some areas, by caceroladas — the banging of pots and pans in protest against the government.
To an extent, this reflects the long-standing antagonism between left and right in Spanish politics. But there’s more to it than that. The precarious nature of the minority administration, a coalition between Sánchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos (UP) to its left, encourages a belligerent approach by the opposition, said Lluís Orriols, a political scientist at Carlos III University in Madrid.
“It’s a government with parliamentary weaknesses and that means that opposition parties don’t see it as a long-term administration and so they are constantly in electoral mode,” he said.
That tendency is fuelled by the PP’s determination not to be cast as weak by its far-right rivals.
But Sánchez’s style of crisis management has also drawn broader criticism. In particular, the government’s failure to consult before making major decisions has riled both the parliamentary opposition and regional administrations. Its planning of the lockdown and the ensuing easing of restrictions all took place behind closed doors, with little consultation, for example, with regional presidents.
“The government has centralized all its decisions, presenting itself as the only manager of this crisis,” said Orriols. “That jars with one of the main tenets of our democracy, which is decentralization.”
One of those decisions, to manage the lifting of lockdown restrictions according to provinces rather than the larger 17 regions, has been especially controversial, with regional administrations complaining that they are being undermined.
The Madrid region’s right-wing government has protested at the central administration’s refusal to allow it to move into phase 1 of the lockdown easing on May 11. Madrid is the country’s main economic hub and the region’s deputy president, Ignacio Aguado, has warned that each week of additional lockdown is costing it more than €1 billion. The country’s main employers’ association issued similar warnings to the Sánchez government as the economy entered a two-week near-total lockdown in late March.
Some of Sánchez’s allies have also been among the critics. The Socialist president of Valencia, Ximo Puig, has attacked what he sees as a lack of transparency in the central government’s refusal to allow much of his Mediterranean region to move into the next phase of the lifting of restrictions.
“Loyalty does not mean submission,” he warned.
The nationalist Catalan government has been a more predictable detractor, with the region’s president, Quim Torra, constantly querying Sánchez’s lockdown strategy and claiming it is an excuse to recentralize devolved powers.
Newspaper El País accused Torra of “making the nationalist agenda the priority rather than the controlling of the pandemic.” But the more moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) has voiced similar misgivings about the central government’s unilateral approach to the crisis.
“The idea that the crisis will cause Sánchez to lose support in this legislature isn’t sustainable” — Francesc-Marc Álvaro, author
In the most recent parliamentary debate on the extension of the state of emergency, the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which co-governs Catalonia and whose support allowed Sánchez to form a new government in January, joined Vox and Torra’s Together for Catalonia (JxCat) in voting against the motion.
The extension was approved because the PP abstained, despite its hostile rhetoric, and the PNV and Ciudadanos each voted in favor after squeezing concessions from Sánchez. Ciudadanos’ cautious support for the government reflects a more centrist tack under new leader Inés Arrimadas, after an aggressive drift to the right by her predecessor, Albert Rivera.
Despite the ructions that the pandemic is generating, Francesc-Marc Álvaro, an author and columnist at newspaper La Vanguardia, doubts it will reshape the political map, because of the huge divide separating left and right. “The idea that the crisis will cause Sánchez to lose support in this legislature isn’t sustainable,” he said. “Sánchez has been able to treat his own allies poorly because he knows that whatever happens, they’re not going to help Casado instead.”
Although ERC, for example, has voted against Sánchez’s state of emergency, it is unlikely to snub the central government altogether, given that the two have recently embarked on talks aimed at solving the Catalan conundrum.
But what this crisis has also underlined are the limits of Spain’s existing territorial system, established as the country made the transition to democracy four decades ago. As the unprecedented emergency has unfolded over recent weeks, Madrid’s centralizing instinct when under pressure has been as visible as ever.
The Spanish periphery – including Catalonia, the Basque Country and Valencia – which has traditionally strained against the country’s centralizing conservative forces has this time been reined in by the most leftist government of the modern era.