CORONAVIRUS

Spain’s prime minister gears up for fight to extend state of alarm

Political opposition to the emergency powers is mounting ahead of a congressional vote on Wednesday

Pedro Sánchez (l) and Pablo Casado in Congress on April 29.
Pedro Sánchez (l) and Pablo Casado in Congress on April 29.

Faced with growing political opposition to the state of alarm implemented in mid-March to combat the spread of the coronavirus, the Spanish government is seeking to extend its emergency powers by framing an upcoming vote in Congress as a choice between the “state of alarm or chaos.”

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who heads a minority coalition government with junior partner Unidas Podemos, will seek another extension to the emergency declaration that underpins what has been one of the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns. The state of alarm must be approved by Congress every two weeks, and the current period ends on May 9. Sánchez will meet with his Cabinet on Tuesday to formalize his request for a fourth 15-day extension.

Casado has not offered an alternative plan because there is none
Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos

The government has been easing some of the confinement measures in recent days as part of a gradual deescalation plan, and is now allowing citizens out for walks and exercise for limited periods of time. On Monday, small businesses reopened under certain conditions. Spain has been one of the world’s hardest hit countries during the pandemic so far, with Covid-19 claiming 25,428 lives according to the official count, which does not include people who died with symptoms but were not tested.

But the leader of the main opposition Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, said on Monday that “prolonging the state of alarm beyond a 60-day period makes no sense.” And the head of center-right group Ciudadanos (Citizens), Inés Arrimadas, wants to disassociate social and economic relief measures from “a constitutional tool that facilitates the restriction of fundamental rights.”

“Yes, there are alternative legal mechanisms to contain [coronavirus] clusters and new outbreaks. To say that there are no legal mechanisms is to say that there’s going to be a state of alarm until we have a vaccine,” said Arrimadas on Tuesday morning on the state broadcaster TVE. “The government does not have an absolute majority, and the state of alarm is an exceptional measure that cannot be prolonged until Mr Sánchez wants.”

Meanwhile, regional leaders have also rejected the idea of prolonging a situation that temporarily increases central powers in a bid to deal with the coronavirus crisis. On Monday, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) announced that it will vote “no” in Congress, where before it had abstained, while the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) is making its support reliant on reaching a deescalation deal with regional authorities. The support or abstention of these two groups was key in forming the coalition government in the first place.

The executive needs a simple majority of more yes than no votes in Congress to get its decree passed on Wednesday. By Tuesday afternoon, the far-right Vox and the Catalan separatist parties Together for Catalonia (JxCat), ERC and Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) were planning to vote against. If the PP decides to join this group, there will be 164 “no” votes in the 350-strong chamber, although so far the conservatives have signaled that they might abstain. The 10 lawmakers for the center-right Ciudadanos have yet to say which way they will vote, but support seems possible.

Counter-attack

On Monday, the government went on the offensive with the message that if the PP does not vote in favor of a new extension to the state of alarm on Wednesday, it will be eluding its responsibility, since the PP holds power in several key regions such as Madrid, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The state of alarm is indispensable. And it works, There are 22 countries with similar systems,” said Health Minister Salvador Illa at a news conference on Monday afternoon. “Let’s not conduct experiments that could lead to chaos.”

Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos went further. “I ask the PP not to allow itself to get dragged down by those who rely on hoaxes,” he said, alluding to the far-right party Vox, which is the third-largest force in the lower house of parliament. “If it does, it will have to answer to citizens if there is greater contagion. For the PP to wash its hands of the decree of alarm is tantamount to condemning us all to chaos.”

The executive still believes that the extension will pass through Congress despite opposition from several parties. Instead, the Sánchez administration is trying to turn the vote into an image problem for the PP.

“The prime minister has explained to Casado that if the state of alarm is no longer in effect, some people will have to go back to work, others back to their studies, and the ERTEs [temporary layoff schemes that guarantee jobs will be maintained] will no longer have a force majeure reason to justify them,” insisted Ábalos. “All efforts would be lost, because we would lack the legal framework. Casado has not offered an alternative plan because there is none.”

Ambiguous position

Casado has not yet made it clear which way the PP will vote, but he has suggested that his party might abstain. “At the present time, with the information in our power, we cannot support this extension,” he said in a radio interview on Onda Cero on Monday.

“The government is taking Spaniards hostage and we will not tolerate it. It is immoral,” he added, alluding to the fact that the ERTE temporary layoff scheme will be state-funded as long as the state of alarm remains in place. Hundreds of companies have filed for ERTEs since the beginning of the pandemic, either sending home or reducing the working hours of their employees.

The PP leader feels it is possible to keep central power and mobility restrictions in place without the need for the state of alarm. “Sánchez must adapt existing legislation on public health, civil protection and national security so that the single healthcare command and the mobility limits between provinces can be implemented without the limits to fundamental rights involved in a state of alarm.”

Ciudadanos chief Inés Arrimadas has said she wants the aid package against the effects of the coronavirus to be independent from the emergency state currently in place. “We have asked for a series of conditions. The first is to disassociate social aid from the state of alarm,” said Arrimadas on TVE on Tuesday morning. “The government has the legal mechanisms to change the royal decrees and disassociate them. Our vote will depend on whether the government wishes to rectify. We have every intention to cooperate, but the government has a lot of things to rectify.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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