CORONAVIRUS

Hundreds of Spaniards march against government despite social-distancing rules

The far-right party Vox has encouraged the protests, which it frames as acts of freedom, but has made clear that it is not organizing them

A sign reading “Get out Sánchez” is seen at a protest outside the Spanish Socialist Party headquarters in Madrid on Sunday.
A sign reading “Get out Sánchez” is seen at a protest outside the Spanish Socialist Party headquarters in Madrid on Sunday.Oscar J. Barroso / AFP7 / Europa Press / Europa Press

Around 20 protesters congregated on Monday afternoon around the home of Spain’s transportation minister, José Luis Ábalos, in a public-shaming event known popularly in Spanish as an escrache.

Ábalos, who is also a top-ranking official with the Socialist Party (PSOE), was not inside his residence at the time. According to eyewitnesses, demonstrators confronted the minister’s wife and daughter as they returned to their home, which is located in the north of the Madrid region.

The incident follows a series of street protests that have been taking place in Madrid and other Spanish cities against the coalition government, made up of the PSOE and junior partner Unidas Podemos, and its handling of the coronavirus crisis.

The protests in Madrid intensified over the weekend, after health authorities on Friday rejected the region’s request to move to the next phase of the coronavirus deescalation plan. While much of the country is now in Phase 1, which allows some degree of social interaction and the reopening of some businesses, Madrid remains in Phase 0, although a few restrictions have been eased.

A recent Civil Guard report warned about the risk of growing social unrest over the coming months. Spain has been under a state of alarm since mid-March, when the government implemented emergency powers to keep citizens in confinement in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has announced that he will be requesting congressional approval for a final one-month extension to the state of alarm, which is due to expire on May 24.

Growing protests

At 9pm on Monday, around 200 protesters gathered outside PSOE headquarters on Ferraz street in Madrid to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. Marchers cried “Sánchez, you criminal!” “Down with communists!” and “Long live Spain, long live the king!” as police officers stood by and asked protesters to respect social-distancing rules.

Meanwhile, some 500 demonstrators marched in Paseo de la Habana, located in Spain’s wealthiest neighborhood, where they banged on pots and pans, called on the government to resign, and chanted “Freedom!” as the national anthem played in the background. Two leaders of the far-right party Vox showed up at the protest: Rocío Monasterio, party chief in the Madrid region, and Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, Vox’s congressional spokesperson.

The anti-government protests began a week ago on Núñez de Balboa street, in the Spanish capital’s upscale Salamanca district, and have spread to other parts of the city such as Moncloa, Chamartín and Paseo de la Castellana.

Demonstrations have also taken place this weekend elsewhere in the Madrid region, including the municipalities of Majadahonda, Pozuelo, Alcobendas, San Sebastián de los Reyes and Galapagar. In Alcorcón, a municipality that is part of the greater Madrid metropolitan area, there were moments of tension on Monday when anti-government protesters were met by another group of marchers bearing anti-fascist symbols. Around 25 police officers were dispatched to the scene as insults and threats were exchanged.

“Spain rising to its feet”

At a virtual news conference held on Monday by Vox’s Political Action Committee, party spokesperson Jorge Buxadé said that the demonstrations represent “a Spain that is rising to its feet,” but denied that his party has been encouraging people to take their balcony protests down to the streets.

“We are only encouraging Spaniards to be free and to exercise their freedoms,” he said. “Those are not demonstrations. It is Spaniards walking with national flags and demanding freedom during the period of time that the government, in its generous wisdom, has allotted for walks,” he explained, in reference to the time slots when adults are allowed outside for a walk or other exercise.

“We are convinced that indignation is going to grow exponentially,” added Buxadé, claiming that demonstrators respected social-distancing rules at all times despite video evidence to the contrary.

The party representative underscored that the only demonstration “organized by Vox, strictly speaking” is the one it has called for Saturday in all of Spain’s provincial capitals. Demonstrators have been asked to show up in private vehicles rather than on foot to ensure social-distancing rules are respected. According to police sources, the Interior Ministry has banned the protests from taking place in Catalonia.

While openly applauding recent street marches against the government, Vox was keen to highlight that it is not the organizer: public-health legislation sets out fines of up to €600,000 for behavior that poses “a risk, or causes very serious damage to the health of the population,” such as a spike in coronavirus transmission due to violations of public-health recommendations.

With reporting by Luis de Vega, Lucía Ramos Aísa, F. Javier Barroso and Miguel González.

English version by Susana Urra.

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