As Spain became the first western European country to reach one million confirmed cases of coronavirus last week, the country’s leaders were busy trading insults in parliament as the Left-wing coalition government faced a no-confidence motion launched by the far-Right Vox party.
The motion in Congress was a raucous affair, spanning two days and taking in issues as far-ranging as Hitler’s legacy and early 20th-century feminism before ending in a predictable defeat for Vox, which called the government “criminal and dictatorial” in its handling of the health crisis.
Outside the heated debating chamber Spain’s second wave continues to grow in intensity, raising the spectre of a return to the nightmarish days of late March and April, when Covid-19 patients saturated hospital wards and corridors, with others left untreated in care homes in their thousands.
Amid public frustration, party leaders have seen their approval ratings slide, with only one front-line politician, Economy Minister Nadia Calviño, a technocrat with a non-combative style, earning a five out of 10 pass grade in the latest survey by the CIS state pollster.
Faced by spiralling Covid contagion and record numbers of cases, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez moved at the weekend to impose a second state of emergency on Spain, and called for unity. The main Popular Party opposition described the government’s wish for the state of emergency to last for two months before the next parliamentary renewal as “a legal outrage”.
Earlier in October a simmering row between Mr Sánchez’s government and the conservative Popular Party (PP) head of Madrid’s regional government, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, ended with the capital area being placed under a state of emergency by the national administration as Covid-19 transmission reached a cumulative 14-day rate of 800 per 100,000 inhabitants – the highest level in the country and across Europe at the time.
Watch: Spain declares coronavirus state of emergency
But Ms Díaz Ayuso publicly denounced a lockdown plan that “destroys Madrid without any scientific criteria”.
“Spain’s system of decentralised government and this extreme polarisation has created this terrible cocktail that is preventing the sensible step of our politicians sitting down with a committee of experts to analyse what is going wrong in Spain,” said Pablo Simón, a political analyst from Madrid’s Carlos III University.
Mr Simón told The Telegraph that the Right-wing opposition parties’ “crude attacks” against Prime Minister Sánchez from the very start of the pandemic had been counterproductive and allowed the government to get away with a lack of transparency.
The official death toll for Covid in Spain remains below 35,000 when excess death figures suggest it could be close to 60,000.
But voter intention polls show Mr Sánchez’s Socialist party still comfortably in the lead. A fragile, minority government in one of Europe’s most deeply divided societies somehow seems more entrenched in power than before the pandemic.
“The political polarisation in Spain has made accountability more difficult. Excessive criticism has had the effect of solidifying group identities,” said Mr Simón.
Pablo Casado, leader of the main opposition PP, has consistently accused Mr Sánchez of lying about the death toll, his aggressive stance partly explained by a fear of being outflanked by Vox, Spain’s third-biggest party, whose leader Santiago Abascal has called the government “criminal”, a “mafia” and Spain’s worst in 80 years, a period neatly encompassing the Franco dictatorship.
Frustration with the political class’s inability to cooperate constructively on solutions to the crisis is growing. Twenty public health experts whose demand that the Spanish government undertake an audit of the handling of the crisis has been published in The Lancet, cited “poor coordination among central and regional authorities [and] low reliance on scientific advice” as key causes of the country’s poor Covid performance.
More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition launched two weeks ago by 55 medical associations to demand that Spanish politicians agree on science-based policies.
“We are seeing a tremendous lack leadership just when we need it most,” said César Carballo, an emergency physician from the Covid front line at Madrid’s Ramón y Cajal hospital.
In other sectors, too, calls for Spain’s warring politicians to unite and work together are becoming increasingly frantic.
“Away with daydreams and demagogy - let's save the lives of people and companies,” said José Luis Bonet, president of Spain’s Chamber of Commerce shortly after the government revealed its prediction of an 11.2 per cent fall in GDP this year.
But even during the height of October’s second-wave crisis in Madrid, Spain’s Left and Right wings found a reason to clash on ideological grounds after the conservative City Hall removed a plaque honouring Francisco Largo Caballero, a Socialist prime minister from 1936-37 after a majority of the council had supported a motion calling the civil war-era politician “a bloody war criminal”.
Workmen were sent out to smash into pieces the plaque dedicated to Largo Caballero on the eve of the first anniversary of the Sánchez government’s removal of the remains of General Francisco Franco from the dictator’s tomb in the gigantic Valley of the Fallen Catholic complex one year ago, a move which has failed to lay to rest Spain’s conflicting views on its past.
Vox has praised those who graffiti monuments to Left-wing and Republican politicians and has delivered “warnings” on social media to the government of Pedro Sánchez that it must repeal the existing historical memory law. But Spain’s coalition government is busy preparing to extend the legislation in order to finally give state aid to the effort to recover Franco’s victims from mass graves, restore property seized by the dictatorship, and ban organisations that glorify the Generalísimo, such as the Francisco Franco Foundation.
David Jiménez, a former editor of the newspaper El Mundo, believes the entire Spanish political system has been shown to be unfit for purpose.
“Our politicians have little incentive to strive for excellence, because they know that Spaniards’ loyalty to their parties rivals their loyalty to their favorite soccer teams,” he wrote in a recent column for The New York Times. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the price of not having our very best at the helm is too high.”
But Manuel Muñiz, Spain’s secretary of state for Global Spain, the country’s international brand, feels the criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis is unfair and premature.
“It’s a mistake to judge a country and the quality of its institutions at the peak of the second wave, when other countries are behind the pandemic’s curve and also face a huge challenge,” Mr Muñiz told The Telegraph.
“We are an extraordinarily self-critical country; maybe it has something to do with being a young democracy.”
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