MADRID - A huge banner emblazoned with the face of the Spanish prime minister covered the entire side of a block of flats in Madrid.
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to George Orwell's Big Brother, the image of Pedro Sánchez ordered citizens: Obey!
It was the most eye-catching of many posters and flags criticizing Spain's left-wing government during recent street demonstrations in cities nationwide.
In apparent defiance of lockdown rules that made social distancing mandatory, thousands openly marched in the Spanish capital then in demonstrations that sprung up in other cities.
Supporters of right-wing parties were rebelling over the way the Socialist government had imposed a state of emergency on a country unaccustomed to being told what to do.
The conservative People's Party and far-right Vox party asserted that the government used the excuse COVID-19 to ride roughshod the rights enshrined in Spain’s 1978 constitution, the first since democracy returned after the death of longtime ruler General Francisco Franco three years before.
One of the nations worst hit by COVID-19, Spain in March imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe to contain the epidemic. Some 47 million Spaniards could only leave their homes to buy food, for medical help or for essential work.
As Spain prepared to end the state of emergency on June 21, critics said questions remain over how the minority government ran the country in the face of extraordinary circumstances.
Vox has appealed to the country's constitutional court, claiming the government breached Spaniards’ right to free movement, a basic right under the constitution.
“They are using the state of emergency to limit people's rights,” Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, the Vox parliamentary spokesman, told VOA in an interview.
“We supported the government at first, but now we are appealing to the constitutional court saying the government has limited people's rights to move around the country during the state of emergency,” he said. “We want to make sure this never happens again.”
In fiery exchanges between Sanchez and opposition parties in the Spanish parliament, the prime minister defended the strict lockdown.
“Without the state of emergency, hundreds of thousands of people would have died in Spain,” Sanchez told MPs in a debate earlier this month.
A spokeswoman for the government said: “The state of emergency, which is a constitutional mechanism, allows the government to restrain the movement of people. This has been key to control the epidemic.”
Javier Arbós, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Barcelona, said two fundamental rights were at stake.
“The state of emergency is designed to preserve one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Spanish constitution — the right to life,” he told VOA in an interview.
“However, Vox has appealed to the constitutional court, saying that this breaks another fundamental right in the constitution — the right to free movement. The court must decide if the law is right to impede movement in order to preserve the right to life.”
“It is a libertarian argument which is important not just in Spain, but there are similarities to the arguments of President Bolsonaro in Brazil and President Trump in the United States.”
On another front, the government faced criticism when then Justice Minister Dolores Delgado was named as state prosecutor in January.
The move raised eyebrows among critics because a senior Socialist Cabinet minister had taken up a key position in the judiciary, which is supposedly non-political.
Then in May, a senior police officer was sacked during an investigation into the decision by the Spanish government to allow demonstrations (marking International Women's Day on March 8 and other political rallies) before imposing a state of emergency.
Days before, on March 2, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU body, warned that large gatherings should be avoided as coronavirus cases mounted.
Spain's interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, dismissed the head of the Civil Guard command in Madrid, Colonel Diego Pérez de los Cobos, citing “loss of trust.”
The sacking came after the Civil Guard, Spain’s national police, sent a report to a judge about how the government dealt with warnings about allowing 177 public gatherings in the run up to the lockdown.
The police report, leaked to Spanish media, concluded that “from 5th March, 2020, there should not have been any demonstrations” due to the health crisis.
A judge later decided there was no case, but dismissal of the senior officer prompted a furious political row with right-wing parties that argued it was politically motivated.
Grande-Marlaska denied the sacking was politically motivated.
Pablo Simón, a politics professor at Carlos III University in Madrid, said the case reflected badly on the government.
“It is not that the minister cannot sack a police officer, but the government should take more care about their image. The minister could have sacked the officer before or after the investigation but not during an investigation,” he said. “To do this during a state of emergency was reproachable.”