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Pandemic Exposes Spain’s Deep Divisions

People walk in a pedestrian area in Barcelona, Spain, May 5, 2020.
People walk in a pedestrian area in Barcelona, Spain, May 5, 2020.

As its coronavirus death rate ebbs, Spain is at last easing one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. But analysts fear its political polarization will hamper its ability climb back from what is expected to be the deepest economic recession since the 1936-39 civil war.

Unlike some other European countries, where parties have made visible efforts to put aside their differences to fight the virus, in Spain the epidemic has only emphasized ideological divisions.

Conservative opposition parties have unsparingly criticized the handling of the crisis by Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist prime minister, who heads a minority government. Most recently, they are demanding a swifter reopening of the economy than Sanchez is willing to sanction.

The prime minister has hit back, telling the Spanish parliament: “Lifting the state of emergency would be a total, unpardonable mistake.” He added that billions of dollars in state aid to help companies and individuals were available only because of the lockdown order.

When Sánchez this week called for another extension of the lockdown until May 24, the parliamentary vote should have been a formality. Instead it blew up into a political row, underlining problems which will dog the government when the immediate health crisis recedes.

Pushback against extending lockdown

Pablo Casado, leader of the main opposition conservative People's Party, initially threatened to vote against extending the lockdown. He said measures designed to contain the spread of the crisis were no longer necessary at a time when people were being allowed outside after more than two months of confinement.

“We cannot support extending the state of emergency,” Casado told Spanish radio Onda Zero this week. “When the prime minister says that ... we are in a phase of de-escalation, it does not seem compatible with continuing to demand extraordinary measures against the rights and freedoms of Spaniards.”

After initially supporting the government, Casado has accused the government of recklessly allowing large marches to mark International Women's Day on March 8 against the advice of health bodies, for acting too slowly and for inconsistencies in releasing data.

People wearing face masks to combat the spread of coronavirus walk in a public park in Madrid, Spain, May 6, 2020.
People wearing face masks to combat the spread of coronavirus walk in a public park in Madrid, Spain, May 6, 2020.

Casado, who later backed down and supported extending the state of emergency, was far from alone in opposing the government.

Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right Vox party, which is the third-largest force in parliament with 52 seats, claimed Sánchez and his left-wing allies Unidas Podemos are replacing a democratic normality with “totalitarianism,” which he said leads to “death, more ruin, more unemployment and less freedom.”

The Catalan Republican Left, a regional separatist party on whom the left-wing government depends for support, also promised to oppose the extension, arguing against Sánchez's centralization of health care, which is usually handled by regional authorities.

Other Catalan separatist politicians have even suggested there would have been fewer deaths if the crisis had been managed by an independent Catalonia.

Sánchez only scraped together enough votes to pass the lockdown extension by doing a last-minute deal with the centrist Ciudadanos party and promising more autonomy to moderate nationalists in the Basque country.

For Sánchez, the battle was won but the war is far from over. Analysts believe the minority government, which depends on several small parties for its survival, may struggle to enact bold measures designed to steer Spain back from an economic recession.

Grim outlook

The outlook is relentlessly grim. The country suffered one of the world's worst outbreaks of the disease, forcing the government in Madrid to put the economy effectively into hibernation.

The Bank of Spain forecasts GDP could contract by up to 12 percent this year and unemployment could rise from 14 percent to above 20 percent. Spain's jobless figure rose by 282,000 in April, according to government data, largely because of the collapse of the tourism industry which accounts for 15 perccent of GDP.

The car industry, a key indicator of economic health in Spain, sold the same number of cars in the entire month of April as it would sell in one day in normal times.

A man holds a face mask as he rests in a public park in Madrid, Spain, May 6, 2020.
A man holds a face mask as he rests in a public park in Madrid, Spain, May 6, 2020.

A parliamentary commission will oversee the country's economic regeneration, but just setting up the commission took weeks of wrangling between Sánchez and Casado.

William Chislett, an analyst at the Real Elcano Institute, a think tank in Madrid, believes the fragmented political landscape will make it hard to find agreement on a common policy.

“There are 16 parties in parliament involved in the regeneration commission. It is difficult to see what they will come up with. Perhaps more taxes, as they will need more money, but that will be opposed by the People's Party,” he said.

“What you have to remember is, Spain was in a weak position before this, with high public debt and unemployment. Now it faces an even worse situation, with lots of political division.”

Political unity is key

With the threat of a second outbreak ever present, political unity will be key to managing the health service and preventing another grim tally of deaths.

Rafael Bengoa, a former director of the World Health Organization and adviser to the U.S. government on public health, said that during the so-called Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, the degree of political solidarity in different U.S. cities had a direct relationship to how well they prevented a second wave of the illness.

St. Louis, Missouri, was able to withstand the virulent flu outbreak, which killed an estimated 40 million people worldwide, while Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, both in Pennsylvania, suffered from second waves of the illness.

A 2007 study published in the of the American Medical Association said multi-agency cooperation in St. Louis meant its death rate was lower, whereas in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh this cooperation did not exist and the number of fatalities was higher.

“History has shown that political unity is one more instrument against a virus, along with a vaccine,” said Bengoa. “This unity has begun to break down in Spain and this will not help if there is another outbreak.”

Successive polls have found Spaniards would like their politicians to put their differences aside to address the national crisis.

Pablo Simón, a political analyst at the University Carlos III in Madrid, said Spain's problem is that its political parties do not prioritize the long-term good of the nation.

“Polarization generates instability. As there are so many political parties, they are only looking for short- or medium-term gain,” he said.