Spain has been one of the countries hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis. According to the World Health Organization, by mid-May Spain had the fifth-most cases and number of deaths, behind the United States, UK, Italy, and France. At that point, it had a confirmed 232,037 cases — and 28,628 deaths.
But Spain has also been one of the countries where the pandemic has been most strongly politicized. The current government, made up of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and its main ally Unidas Podemos, took form after the November 2019 election; headed by PSOE premier Pedro Sánchez and deputy prime minister Pablo Iglesias, this is the first governing coalition of the Left since before the Civil War of the 1930s.
Yet the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the far-right Vox have unrelentingly refused to accept this government — denying both the legitimacy of the electoral result and the coalition that eventually formed. For the PP and Vox, this government is “undemocratic,” born of an “institutional coup,” and propped up by “separatists” (i.e., the Catalan national parties) and “terrorists” (i.e., Bildu, the left-wing nationalist party in the Basque Country, which mass media usually associate with disbanded terrorist group ETA).
After the no-confidence vote against the last PP premier Mariano Rajoy in June 2018 (the first successful such vote since the return of democracy), the Right has regrouped its forces. Initially, three parties fought for leadership: the PP, which has adopted more radical positions since Pablo Casado was elected its leader in 2018; Vox, headed by Santiago Abascal; and Ciudadanos (Cs), originally a centrist formation which later moved to the right to compete with these others. But while in November’s election Cs’ vote collapsed, tipping it back toward the center, the PP and Vox have radicalized.
This radicalization owes both to these parties’ competition with each other and their shared aim of tearing down a government they call illegitimate. Amid the magnitude of the current pandemic, politicians in many countries have often sought consensus, shying from a rhetoric of sharp confrontation. But the PP and Vox have instead seen this crisis as a wonderful opportunity — a chance to topple the PSOE-Podemos government.
The COVID-19 Crisis as Opportunity
In this, the right-wing parties have pursued a twofold strategy.
First, the resort to and misuse of the legal system as a stick with which to beat the government, inspired by similar recent maneuvers in Brazil and Argentina.
Second, the imitation of the tactics of the US protesters who denounce the lockdown as tyrannical. This has inspired rallies against the lockdown in neighborhoods like Salamanca — the wealthiest in Madrid — and Vox’s car rally in the capital on May 23.
This has largely played out as a clash between central and regional authorities, controlled by different forces; indeed, Madrid’s regional government, led by Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the PP, has established itself as the leading voice of the opposition.
This clash began already back on March 14, when the Sánchez government approved the first “state of emergency,” placing Spain in one of the world’s tightest lockdowns. Yet from the beginning, the government’s opponents assailed it for its delay in rolling out robust measures to fight the virus, and for allowing huge rallies across the country on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day.
This was not the only criticism. For their part, the regional governments of Catalonia and the Basque Country claimed that the central government’s measures could undermine their autonomy over matters like health, security, and transport, decentralized to regional administrations in the 1980s and 1990s.
The radicalization of the PP and Vox, which both aspire to the recentralization of Spain, fueled the fears of the Basque and Catalan executives that the state of emergency, and the powers the central government acquired during it, could in the future undermine the system of regional government based on autonomous comunidades.
At first, the PP-Vox opposition to the government’s response was undermined by the toll the coronavirus took on their own ranks. The Madrid PP’s Isabel Díaz Ayuso gave an interview criticizing the government in which she herself showed symptoms of COVID-19. After denying it, she indeed tested positive and self-isolated for two weeks — in a sumptuous Madrid hotel suite at a generously discounted rate. Likewise, the Vox second-in-command Javier Ortega Smith tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a gathering of the Vox faithful in Madrid (the very same date as the International Women’s Day rally!) while already showing symptoms.
Yet these parties are clearly on the offensive. Indeed, even faced with the radicalization of the Right, during the first month of the pandemic some media suggested the solution lay in a “government of national unity” between the PP, PSOE, and Cs. Such a proposal amounted to expelling Unidas Podemos from the ruling coalition and putting an end to its left-wing policies. This was a nonstarter, however: not only did Sánchez oppose this, but so did the PP’s leader Pablo Casado. Vox, for its part, launched a social media campaign suggesting that Spain was ruled by “irresponsibles” who were “murdering innocent Spaniards.”
A Spanish “Venezuela”
Doubtless, though, this crisis has destabilized the minority government. According to the Spanish constitution, the state of emergency necessary for the lockdown needs to be approved by a parliamentary majority every fortnight. After being approved three times, a further extension in early May was complicated by renewed opposition from the PP and Vox, as well as the Catalan-nationalist ERC. The PP’s Casado declared that the crisis measures — initially designed to contain the disease and prevent the collapse of the country’s intensive care units — were no longer necessary at a time when people were once again being allowed outdoors after the lifting of some measures on April 26.
He also accused Sánchez of hasty improvisation in lifting the lockdown — proclaiming that the PP would not tolerate the minority government’s “immoral” attempts to “hold Spaniards hostage.” Vox leader Santiago Abascal chimed in that the government was seeking to replace democratic normality with “a totalitarian one based on uncertainty that has brought Spain nothing but more death, more ruin, more unemployment, and less freedom.”
Like protesters in the United States who denounce the prevention measures as a tyrannical affront to liberty, the PP and Vox openly encouraged citizens to disobey the lockdown. Spain currently has a system of four stages of “de-escalation”; Madrid, being the worst-hit area, was not allowed to move from stage zero to one until June 1. Yet the regional PP government headed by Díaz Ayuso (and backed by Vox) claims that this decision to delay the reopening of Madrid was “politically motivated” rather than based on scientific evidence. In her view, the PSOE is using the levers of the central government to “control” the Madrid regional administration and to push through their policies against the interests of her comunidad.
On a similar note, Vox has tried to tap into the spirit of May 2 — the day that Madrid commemorates the city’s rebellion against Napoleon’s armies in 1808. It backs the caceroladas strategy of banging kitchen pots and pans every day at 9 PM to signal displeasure with the government. Vox’s dominant social media sound bite has been “Spain, wake up!” and “For less, we kicked out Napoleon troops, [Spaniards] wake up!” Indeed, in the weeks after May 2 spontaneous rallies emerged in the richest areas of the capital. People waving Spanish flags broke the lockdown rules and shouted for “freedom” and “resign, Pedro Sánchez.” This culminated on May 23 in a Vox-sponsored car rally to oppose the government, flooding central Madrid with chants of “Resign, Government,” “Freedom” or “We don’t want a Venezuela in Spain.”
Partly thanks to such chants, some observers have likened these street protests by Madrid’s gilded classes to the Chilean middle-class mobilization against Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. These parties’ invocation of a Venezuelan bogeyman is, indeed, ironic, given their aim to import the radicalism and militancy of the Latin American right into the Spanish context. A constant of Spanish politics even before the COVID-19 crisis, references to Venezuela are today ever-present. For instance, at the height of the pandemic, Madrid’s regional government reached an agreement with Telepizza, one of the country’s largest food delivery companies, to provide pizzas every day to children in Madrid. Accused by Unidas Podemos of favoring a private company detrimental to children’s health, Díaz Ayuso averred that she preferred a meal from Telepizza than the “Venezuelan-style meals that Podemos would provide.” Similarly, Vox leader Abascal has praised Trump’s designation of Antifa as a terrorist organization as a “brave decision” in total contrast to Spain where “the PSOE seat them in the ministries and the CNI [the Spanish’s CIA]” — a clear reference to their alliance with the antifascist Unidas Podemos.
A second Latin American comparison shines through in the Right’s use — and misuse — of the legal system as a stick with which to beach the government. In this, it has drawn inspiration from the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Brazil and Argentina, respectively. The PP and Vox maintain that the extent of the pandemic in Spain owes to the rally to mark International Women’s Day, and that the government was aware of this risk but allowed it to go ahead anyway, given its ideological zeal to support the feminist movement.
Last week, the judge Carmen Rodríguez-Medel opened legal proceedings in Madrid to ascertain whether this is true. The PP and Vox aim to bring the Spanish government to trial to try to force its fall. This case has opened up a severe crisis in Spain’s democracy. After Judge Rodríguez-Medel opened the case, she asked the Guardia Civil (military police) to submit a report on whether the government knew of the risks of allowing the March 8 rally. As the newspaper El Diario has shown, the report is full of mistakes, has manipulated witness statements, and presented fake news as evidence.
On May 25, the Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska dismissed the Guardia Civil chief Diego Pérez de los Cobos for “loss of confidence” because of his lack of “political neutrality.” The PP and Vox rejected this, accusing Marlaska of dismissing Pérez de los Cobos simply because he sent the report to the judge without informing the interior minister himself — insisting that he had been asked to acquiesce in what would have amounted to ministerial interference in the judicial system. On June 2, newspaper El Confidencial leaked that Marlaska dismissed Pérez de los Cobos for not “sharing” information with him regarding the judge’s case on the March 8 rally.
This has opened up a huge crisis between the Guardia Civil and the government — and further fueled the PP and Vox’s claims that the government is pushing through an “authoritarian” turn. On May 27, the PP general secretary Teodoro García Egea insinuated that anyone who investigated the Spanish government risked being removed or fired. He also defended the Guardia Civil’s actions — insisting that the government would fail in any possible attempt to abolish it.
For his part, Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias accused García Egea of promoting open rebellion among police ranks. At the time of writing, the second-in-command of the Guardia Civil has resigned, while the third-in-command was dismissed on May 28 by Grande-Marlaska in an open confrontation between the police forces and the government.
For PP leader Casado, the interior minister’s actions were something that only happened in “Latin American dictatorships” — here alluding to Venezuela. He proclaimed that the government would not be able to “gag the Spanish people, nor the media, nor social media, nor the street, nor the courts.” On June 2, the PP, Ciudadanos, and Vox demanded Grande-Marlaska’s removal after the El Confidencial revelations.
These two strategies of anti-lockdown resistance and the legal assault on the government have gone hand in hand. But more importantly, the PP-Vox offensive has tapped into strong opposition to the government’s plans coming from the IBEX 35 — the alliance of Spain’s thirty-five biggest companies.
In particular, the IBEX 35 oppose plans to replace the current Labor Law, a document approved in 2012 amid the last economic crisis. This law represented not only a symbol of the austerity imposed on Spain by the European Union, but also accelerated the precaritization of the working class; indeed, since the emergence of the Indignados movement it has become a target for social movements and the Left. The Right also opposes the “Minimal Living Income” legislation approved on May 29. Aimed at helping the lowest earners, this initiative put forward by the minister of social security will benefit almost 850,000 households.
It remains too early to see if Spain will be one of the first governments to fall in the COVID-19 crisis. The far right hint darkly at the prospect of a coup, which seems unlikely even despite the deeply troubling tensions between the police and the government. Rather more likely is the breakdown of the coalition between PSOE and Unidas Podemos, with the PSOE opting to form a national unity government with the PP or, indeed, Cs, which has already reached some agreements with the government during this crisis. Important sections of the PSOE have always mistrusted Unidas Podemos and preferred a national unity government with more right-wing forces. This would, indeed, follow on from the PSOE’s previous toleration of Mariano Rajoy’s PP government, and the closeness the parties have shown during turbulent patches such as the Catalan crisis in 2017.
The forthcoming economic crisis would open space for Vox to take to the streets and legitimize their strategy against the current government. In this situation, and with austerity policies likely to be applied in Spain as an imposition of the European Union, it would be unsurprising if Unidas Podemos decided to break up the coalition government if the PSOE accepts a new round of austerity. Birthed by the widespread dissatisfaction with, and the street movements against, austerity of 2012–14, Unidas Podemos would find it hard, if not impossible, to accept renewed austerity. Breaking with the current government would allow them to oppose austerity in the parliament and match Vox’s presence in street mobilizations. At the moment, this option still seems distant.
Last weekend, Unidas Podemos and PSOE tried to resolve some of the tensions that arose from Pablo Iglesias’s suggestion that the PP and Vox sought a coup d’état against the government. While some sectors of the PSOE, especially in Andalucia and Castilla–La Mancha, have always wanted the coalition to fail, the people close to Pedro Sánchez in Madrid want to maintain it. On June 1, Pablo Iglesias reiterated that his party wants a four-year government and committed to keeping the current coalition.
Be that as it may, the current polarization seems unlikely to ebb. Recent polls suggest that the PP is benefiting from its strong opposition to the government. This leads us to think that both the PP and Vox will continue the strategy that they have pursued during this crisis, taking to the offensive not just in parliament, but also in the streets and the judicial system.
The present situation in Spain could be an example of equivalent challenges in other countries in the wake of the pandemic, as continued economic downturn will likely give space to anti-government parties and far-right groups. Faced with this PP-Vox offensive, it is thus imperative that Spain’s other political forces defend the current center-left government.
That government does have many contradictions and limitations. But its approval of the “Minimal Living Income” and the proposal to ditch the Labor Law are promising signs that a center-left government is possible and could improve workers´ conditions. If it does fall, the possibility that antidemocratic and far-right forces like Vox could enter government is a serious threat — one dangerous to the interests of most Spanish citizens. We must not fail.