As non-essential employees who cannot work from home return to their jobs in Spain today, the Spanish government is greatly concerned that the end to the two-week “hibernation” of the economy could send a message to the rest of the population that the country is deescalating measures despite the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
The partial return to work, which mostly affects industry and the construction sector (retail stores, bars, cultural venues and leisure centers remain closed) is taking place despite the reticence of some health experts and the opposition of some politicians. Catalonia is radically opposed to the idea and Madrid has doubts about the risk of a spike in infections.
Speaking to regional premiers via videoconference on Sunday, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez made it clear that the lockdown is still in place – a message he repeated shortly afterward during a televised press conference to the Spanish public.
“I want to be very clear,” he said. “We are not yet entering a second phase. The deescalation will begin at the earliest within two weeks and it will be progressive and cautious. The general confinement will continue for at least the next two weeks.”
The situation remains critical in Spain, with 16,972 registered deaths related to Covid-19 and more than 166,000 officially detected so far. During his address, Sánchez celebrated the fact that ahead of the declaration of the state of alarm on March 14, infections were growing at a rate of 38%. They are now, he explained, at 3%. But despite this improvement, he reiterated that “all that has ended is the extreme hibernation measure” that sent all non-essential workers home on obligatory paid leave for the last two weeks.
“What must be, on the other hand, immediate and start now, is the deescalation of the political tension,” Sánchez added, inviting all parties, but particularly the main opposition Popular Party (PP), to join together to forge a “grand pact for the economic and social reconstruction of the country.” He went on to say that the “destructive potential of the virus does not differentiate between territories or political colors [...]. Aggressive language and coarse words should be left behind. By everyone. I commit to being the first to work on this given my responsibility as prime minister,” he said, calling or “unity, dialogue, consensus and agreement.
“No one can win this war alone,” Sánchez stated. “Only united will we beat the virus.”
Control over the crisis
The coalition government, which is led by the Socialist Party (PSOE) with support from junior partner Unidas Podemos, has been harshly criticized by the opposition for its handling of the coronavirus crisis, in particular by the PP and by far-right group Vox. What’s more, regions such as Catalonia – which has seen an independence drive over recent years – have also been criticizing what they see as the central government not consulting or counting on them to deal with the situation. Under the state of alarm, Madrid has assumed some of the devolved powers of the regions.
“It is true that they want to have a greater capacity to take decisions,” said Sánchez on Sunday about the regional chiefs. “But citizens and regional premiers will understand that the government is having to take decisions on some occasions very quickly, and in an unprecedented situation.” He described the criticism of regional premiers as “constructive.”
“While this emergency continues, no word other than ‘unity’ will pass my lips,” he said. “No rebukes, no criticism, no rebuffs.”
The executive has suggested the need for a sweeping cross-party deal to address the coronavirus crisis, styled after the so-called “Moncloa Pacts” of 1977 that produced a national socioeconomic recovery program and shored up Spain’s transition to democracy.
The Moncloa Pacts, named after the prime minister’s residence in Madrid, were reached at another time of crisis for Spain. In 1977, the country was emerging from decades of Franco’s dictatorship, there was political turmoil and the inflation rate was in excess of 26%. All the main parties, including the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), which had been legalized in April of that year, came together in a wide-reaching agreement on political and economic issues. The pacts were signed in October.
Sánchez leads a minority coalition government with junior partner Unidas Podemos. Given the lack of a working majority, the prime minister needs the support of other groups in order to pass legislation. While he has secured the votes he has needed so far to implement – and then extend – the state of alarm, it is unclear whether he will have the same backing moving forward, and the political will among the opposition for a new Moncloa Pact does not appear to be forthcoming.
The PP and Vox have been focussing their political attacks on Pablo Iglesias, one of Spain’s deputy prime ministers and the leader of Unidas Podemos. PP chief Pablo Casado and Vox leader Santiago Abascal are seeking the resignation of Iglesias before they even debate the Moncloa Pact suggested by the prime minister. Center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), meanwhile, is taking a less belligerent stance but is also offering to do a deal with Sánchez provided he moves away from the populism of Unidas Podemos.
On Saturday, the PP spokesperson in Congress, Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, told an Argentine television station that the “far left,” in reference to Podemos, was imposing an exit from the crisis that involved the nationalization of industry. “There is a certain temptation in political movements such as Podemos, from the far left, to move to an exit from the crisis toward nationalization with a stronger state, one that intervenes more, with greater public spending and shattering the balance between the public and private sectors,” she said. This is a stance that Casado backs.
Sources from the leadership of the PP have admitted that their objective is to criticize and attack Iglesias but also to identify him with the prime minister, in order to weaken both.
The approach taken by Vox, meanwhile, is far less subtle. Its leader, Santiago Abascal, has made clear to Sánchez that he “detests” the way he governs, as well as his partners in government, and has been calling for both the prime minister and Iglesias to resign before any kind of talks can begin.
Vox has said it has no interest in any kind of Moncloa Pacts, but has not officially ruled out whether or not it would refuse to negotiate should the moment arrive.
Ciudadanos, led by Inés Arrimadas, has taken a different approach. During the debate in Congress on Thursday ahead of a vote to extend the state of alarm, party spokesperson Edmundo Bal offered “loyal and constructive support” to work with the government. Speaking during a press conference on Friday, Arrimadas defined her party’s opposition as “useful, responsible and constructive,” and made clear that her party would take part in any kind of cross-party deal.
She did, however, have a warning for Sánchez, calling for “less populist ideology,” arguing that there was “no need to change the economic system, nor to pit the public sector against the private sector, nor attack the king.” She posed a question to the prime minister, asking whether he would opt “for us, or Pablo Iglesias and the trial balloons?”
English version by Simon Hunter.