CORONAVIRUS

Spanish political parties close ranks around the government in battle against the coronavirus

The priority for the administration now, as well as stopping the spread of the pandemic, will be the minimizing of the economic damage caused by the crisis

Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska (l) holds a video conference meeting on Monday.
Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska (l) holds a video conference meeting on Monday.MINISTERIO DEL INTERIOR

With the Spanish (and global) economy in freefall, the coronavirus pandemic still spreading, and citizens in Spain on lockdown in their houses, Spain’s political parties – including the opposition – opted on Monday to close ranks around Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. The leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, stated yesterday that he would support all of the measures that the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos coalition government is taking, and avoided criticizing the actions of the executive, which declared a state of alarm in the country on Saturday, giving it greater powers to combat the ongoing health crisis.

The latest figures for the coronavirus outbreak in Spain show a total of 9,191 infections, and 329 deaths

The leader of far-right party Vox, Santiago Abascal – who has confirmed that he is infected with the coronavirus – also committed on Monday to supporting the government, after having been highly critical of the its handling of the situation. He did, however, call for the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo, and Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts, and one of the most visible faces of the government during the crisis.

The latest figures for the coronavirus outbreak in Spain show a total of 9,191 infections, and 329 deaths. A government minister on Monday suggested that the state of alarm would have to be extended from the initial 15 days that have been decreed, and later in the day the interior minister announced that Spain would close its land borders at midnight, with the exception of residents and others who cite reasons of force majeure.

Video conference meetings are happening apace in La Moncloa prime ministerial palace, both with Spanish and European political leaders, after Spain yesterday became the second country in the world in terms of new daily infections, only behind Italy. Spain is the fourth country in the world in terms of total infections, behind China, South Korea and Italy. The former two countries are beginning to get the situation under control, but Italy and Spain are still far from that point.

The PP and far-right Vox have until now slammed the executive for its lack of action, in particular for not canceling the 8-M Women’s Day marches

Given the outlook, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has been seeking political support. The PSOE leader has spoken twice with Casado in the last 10 days. He has also held a round of talks with the spokespersons from all Spanish parties to inform them that he would be speaking on Wednesday in Congress, and to call for unity. There have been calls for this congressional session to be held entirely via videoconference, but the regulations governing the lower house of parliament do not include such an option. The government and Congress were yesterday trying to iron out these legal issues.

The session will be the first chance that the opposition will have to directly convey to the government its criticism of the handling of the situation. The PP and far-right Vox have until now slammed the executive for its lack of action, in particular for not canceling the 8-M Women’s Day marches that took place on Sunday March 8 across the country, and which included the participation of many high-profile PSOE and Unidas Podemos politicians. Just the next day, the decision was taken to close all schools and universities in the Madrid region in a bid to slow coronavirus infections, sending 1.5 million students home.

But on Monday Pablo Casado made a significant change in direction. On Saturday he accused the government of negligence and argued that the delay in taking decisions was facilitating the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. On Monday, after speaking to the prime minister, the PP leader offered his support for all measures necessary to combat the virus. He also conveyed a message of unity, in contrast to the four statements he had made previously. “Now every minute counts in human lives, and that is why it is important that we all row in the same direction,” he said. “We are all in this together.”

Casado called on the government to assist Spain’s regions in the supply of protective equipment for its health workers. And he told Sánchez that he would support the government’s measures so that “the economic crisis does not turn into a social crisis.” The PP leader also called for a €100 billion fund to help companies and the self-employed to deal with the consequences of the state of alarm.

There are many options on the table for the economic measures the government can take, from direct financial assistance and special measures covering unemployment benefits, to a suspension of mortgage and rental payments for those who will struggle to pay them. But there are also intense discussions among the partners in government as to the size of the financial package, its cost and its possible financing, given that the Spanish state has very little room for manoeuvre in fiscal terms and will need European Union support.

English version by Simon Hunter.