CORONAVIRUS

Spain’s Congress of Deputies approves fourth extension to state of alarm

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez secured last-minute support from opposition groups to prolong emergency powers to combat the coronavirus crisis

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Congress on Wednesday.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Congress on Wednesday.Pool Efe / GTRES

The Congress of Deputies voted on Wednesday to extend the state of alarm in Spain for another 15 days, maintaining the emergency powers this situation gives the government to deal with the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), first implemented the state of alarm on March 14. Today’s extension is the fourth that has been authorized by Spain’s lower house of parliament.

Sánchez’s request for an additional period until May 24 was met with growing objections from the opposition, and the prime minister, who heads a minority government in coalition with junior partner Unidas Podemos, was forced into last-minute negotiations to secure the simple majority of more yes than no votes he needed in the 350-strong Congress.

There are no absolutely correct decisions, but lifting the state of alarm now would be an absolute mistake
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez

“We have managed a partial victory against the virus with everyone’s sacrifice,” he told lawmakers at the start of the debate on Wednesday morning. “We are not here by chance. Nobody gets it right all the time in such an unprecedented situation. There are no absolutely correct decisions, but lifting the state of alarm now would be an absolute mistake.”

The government offered concessions to the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) and to the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) to ensure success even though the main opposition group, the Popular Party (PP), finally decided to withdraw its earlier support and abstain in the vote.

Sánchez, who announced this morning that the country will have an official period of mourning for its Covid-19 victims “when most of the country is in Phase 1 of the deescalation,” sought to underscore his message that the state of alarm is necessary to defeat the coronavirus and that this legal tool is not encroaching on citizens’ freedoms.

“All rights remain intact, not a single liberty has been violated. Just two of them have been limited, freedom of movement and to ensure public health and save lives,” he said. “We need to limit freedom of movement a few weeks more.” Sánchez insisted this is meant to prevent the spread of the virus, not “as a ruse to curtail liberties.”

But his words did not appear to convince PP leader Casado, who announced that because of the government’s most recent concessions, his 88 lawmakers would abstain rather than cast no votes. Casado was highly critical of the government during his speech, telling Sánchez that “the exceptional situation does not allow for a constitutional dictatorship.” The conservative leader accused Sánchez of lying about the causes of the severe impact of the Covid-19 disease in Spain, and of manipulating its economic and social consequences.

“You are trying to craft a tale that’s outside reality in order to arrive at this unsettling new normality that you’re trying to sell us. Don’t bring us another extension in 15 days, because we won’t approve it. We do not support this overstepping of legal boundaries that has turned into a covert state of exception,” said Casado, alluding to the second of three emergency situations contemplated by the Spanish Constitution: state of alarm, exception and siege.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal struck a similar note, warning Sánchez that he will have to prepare for class action suits because of his mishandling of the crisis, and suggesting that the prime minister might soon face a vote of no confidence in Congress.

“You, Mr Sánchez, are trying to blackmail this chamber into renewing a power that you have abused. Maintaining the state of alarm saves neither lives nor jobs. What would save lives and jobs would be a change of government,” said the leader of Spain’s far-right party, which is the third largest group in Congress following the general election in November 2019.

Abascal also aimed a barrage of criticism at Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias of Unidas Podemos, whom he accused of wishing to introduce “ a bolivarian regime” in Spain, alluding to Venezuela under the populist leader Hugo Chávez.

A majority

Together with the votes from his coalition partner Unidas Podemos and a few small parties such as the Canaries Coalition, Sánchez counted on 178 affirmative ballots, which was an absolute majority. There were 75 votes against and 97 abstentions.

The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which has six representatives in Congress, announced on Wednesday morning that it would vote in favor of a fourth 15-day period, in exchange for a pledge from Sánchez that decisions on deescalation will be made in partnership with regional authorities, not decreed from Madrid.

The Socialist leader also clinched a deal with Ciudadanos leader Inés Arrimadas that included political and economic concessions, including weekly meetings to discuss deescalation measures and negotiating financial aid for self-employed workers once the state of alarm is over. Ciudadanos holds 10 seats in Congress.

The Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which was instrumental in getting Sánchez back into the prime minister’s office and which had so far supported the extensions, decided to vote against rather than abstain this time around, as did two other separatist parties, Together for Catalonia (JxCat) and Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP).

Gabriel Rufián of ERC said that his party no longer supported a renewal of emergency powers because “there are no health criteria to justify this state of alarm under a single command in Madrid, which does not take into account crucial territorial information. The territories should make decisions, out of pure efficiency. We say no to a sine die extension to not having rights.”

‘Alarm or chaos’

In a country that has been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus crisis, with 25,857 officially recognized deaths as of Wednesday, the government had been framing the situation as a choice between “state of alarm or chaos.”

“The only tool to limit mobility and fight against Covid-19 is the extension of the state of alarm,” insisted Sánchez in the Senate on Tuesday.

But some opposition groups were arguing that there are existing laws that could be used instead to retain central command over healthcare and curtail citizen mobility during the country’s ongoing phased deescalation.

There have also been calls for Sánchez to disassociate coronavirus relief measures from the state of alarm. Legal experts had warned that if the extension had failed in Congress, it could have meant that almost all the measures the government has introduced to address the coronavirus crisis would be immediately dismantled on May 9.

Spain’s system of two-week periods differs from the methods used by other European countries to implement their own emergency legislation. Italy decreed a state of emergency on January 31 for a six-month period, and France introduced it on March 23 for the space of two months.

English version by Susana Urra.

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