After bitter debate in Congress, Spain’s PM secures extension to state of alarm

Pedro Sánchez was harshly criticized for his handling of the coronavirus crisis by the PP and Vox, but found the votes needed for a final period of the emergency measures

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez during today's session in Congress.
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez during today's session in Congress.ALBERTO DI LOLLI (AFP)

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez took advantage on Wednesday of a debate in the Congress of Deputies to call for support from other parties with the objective of “facilitating the transformation of the economy to another, more sustainable model,” in a bid to deal with the destruction caused by the coronavirus crisis.

The Socialist Party (PSOE) leader, who heads a coalition government with junior partner Unidas Podemos, was speaking in Spain’s lower house of parliament today at a vote to extend the state of alarm for a sixth and final time. The emergency powers have been in place since March 14, with the aim of halting the spread of the coronavirus. After an at times bitter debate, Sánchez won the vote to keep the state of alarm in place until June 21, with 177 votes in favor. The abstention of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the support of the Basque Nationalist Party and Ciudadanos (Citizens) was key to the legislation passing.

Sánchez called on groups such as the PP and far-right Vox not to use the Spanish flag as a symbol against Spaniards

Sánchez announced to lawmakers during the session that the Cabinet will next week approve a Royal Decree that will unite all of the measures and health regulations that will be in place as Spain exits the crisis, and that will be implemented jointly with the country’s regional governments until a vaccine against the Covid-19 disease is available.

As the coronavirus crisis has progressed, criticism of the government by the opposition at these debates – which have been held every two weeks during the state of alarm – has grown increasingly fierce.

Today Sánchez called on groups such as the conservative Popular Party (PP) and far-right Vox not to use the Spanish flag as a symbol against Spaniards. But his appeals did nothing to placate PP chief Pablo Casado, who once again delivered a relentless attack on the prime minister, citing all of the controversies and scandals that have affected the PSOE administration since Pedro Sánchez took power in 2018 thanks to a motion of no confidence he won against then-PP Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

We have overcome the worst of the pandemic,” stated Sánchez at the outset of the debate, and repeated some of the arguments he had voiced during previous sessions, such as how no country in the world was prepared for this kind of health emergency. He justified the decisions his government had taken during the worst of the epidemic in Spain, when as many as 950 Covid-19 fatalities were reported in a single day, and during the current moment, with the Spanish Health Ministry having reported no new deaths for two days running.

Sánchez offered several summaries of the government’s actions during this “global catastrophe” – by way of justification, to get ahead of arguments that were likely to be used by the opposition, and in a bid to smooth the path ahead during the final stages of deescalation in terms of political tensions.

Sánchez also called for more political unity in Spain to pressure the European Union for the completion of a ‘Marshall Plan’

The prime minister described the last stage of the government’s plans as a “graudal, cautious and intelligent deescalation,” calling for prudence and caution. He also stated that, given the evidence and the data showing that the state of alarm had been effective, and that its implementation had at first been supported by all of the parties in Congress, he was surprised that some groups were no longer voting in favor of its extension.

Sánchez also called for more political unity in Spain to pressure the European Union for the completion of a “Marshall Plan” that is set to mobilize up to €140 billion of grants and loans for Spain, and announced that the government was preparing a recovery plan of “unprecedented magnitude.”

He also referred to the so-called “war of flags” that has broken out during the crisis between some parties and sections of the population, with the Spanish flag often being considered as a symbol of the far right during recent demonstrations. The flag, Sánchez stated, “is a fabric that symbolizes a nation woven by 47 million threads," in reference to the population of Spain, "one that represents everyone, with the will to live together, create a project for a common country, and that no one has the right to use against others.” He went on to say that “Spain is an extraordinary country, the best in the world, where there aren’t good Spaniards and bad Spaniards,” and that dialogue between all must be “reformed, preserved and modernized.”

“The poison of hate is the most damaging,” he said. “Let us say no to the poison of hate, no to verbal and physical violence, no to insults and provocations. Our parents did not sacrifice themselves for this,” he concluded. The prime minister admitted that the government had made mistakes during the coronavirus crisis, but also expressed his pride in the government’s actions, such as the recent introduction of a minimum guaranteed income scheme, and support of feminist marches. “I’ll say it loud and clear, long live 8-M,” he said, in reference to the date of Women’s Day, March 8.

Casado called Sánchez a “a lame duck with the worst and darkest record” in Spain’s democratic period

PP chief Pablo Casado began his response by pointing out that two years had passed since Sánchez won his vote of no confidence against Mariano Rajoy. He then proceeded to read a prepared speech during which he disqualified everything that the PSOE government had done, arguing that it had “encouraged division and polarization” in the country, and that Sánchez was “speaking about poison when handing out hemlock.” He also condemned the government’s agreements with pro-independence parties – such as the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and EH Bildu – which, he said, wanted to break up and destroy Spain.

Casado called Sánchez a “a lame duck with the worst and darkest record” in Spain’s democratic period, blaming him for hiding the true number of Covid-19 deaths in Spain, for putting thousands of women at risk for not having canceled this year’s Women’s Day marches (which took place just a day before schools began to close across Spain due to the coronavirus outbreak), and for the “purges” of Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, who last week sacked a Civil Guard colonel.

Casado pointed to Sánchez as responsible for the coronavirus crisis, and warned that when it is over, the PP would call for an investigation commission in Congress regarding the management of the pandemic, so that the actions of the “most radical prime minister in the history of Spain” would not stay hidden.

The leader of far-right Vox, Santiago Abascal, also rejected Sánchez’s calls for unity, and once again focused his attacks on Unidas Podemos leader and Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias. “Shouting ‘Long live 8-M’ is the same as shouting long live disease and death!” Abascal stated. He warned Iglesias that he would be held to account before the courts and before Spaniards, and reproached him for leaving the chamber while Abascal was speaking. “Take advantage of it, you will have time to see [these speeches] from a TV screen when you are in jail,” he said.

After more than six hours, very little time had actually been dedicated to the subject of the debate, which was the extension of the state of alarm. Instead opposition politicians had mostly focused on criticizing the web of alliances that Sánchez had required to get the legislation through, with references to Hitler, Mussolini, Napoleon and Nicolás Maduro all part of the discourse.

With additional reporting by Natalia Junquera.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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