The Spanish Government Hold on as the Political Landscape Shifts Post- Coronavirus

Saturday’s car protest in Madrid. Credit El Pais BALLESTEROS / EFE

On Saturday 23rd May Madrid saw a protest with a twist. The capital of Spain has been home to some historic protests in the past such as International Women’s day, 15M and the White wave. However, yesterday’s protest against the government’s lockdown conditions had two things that those did not have: cars and the Spanish national flag.

The protest was against the left wing government and was mainly using the call for freedom as a rally cry. It was held in Madrid on its last weekend under the state of alarm quarantine measures. The rest of Spain had moved to the next less restrictive phase two weeks ago. This was more of a show of strength for the Spanish right in the capital as meaningful protests failed to form elsewhere in the country.

The protest organised by Vox was straight down the heart of the capital from Cibeles roundabout where Real Madrid hold their celebrations, up past Plaza Colon towards the north of the city. This route works well for protestors in cars as it is wide, and pretty much a straight line.

Vox were at the front of the legal protest and behind them was a tail of red and yellow flags on either side of people’s cars. Not everyone was enthusiastic about the protest as some doctors and nurses held up signs as the protesters drove past their hospital. A side of reports of journalists being attacked, little seemed to happen at this protest.

Whilst the Spanish right are out of power there has been a real battle between the Popular Party and Vox for votes. Two weeks ago, street protests started in the Salamanca neighbourhood of Madrid, in the past a PP strong hold and one of the wealthiest areas of Spain. In fact, the split between the Spanish right can be seen in this area with Vox eating away at the PPs vote share.

This split in the Spanish right is between the soft and hard elements, both economically and socially. The more socially liberal and traditional free market conservatives flourished under Rajoy and have chosen to stay in the party. Whilst the more neo-liberal economic embracing and culturally conservative members left to join Vox. 

The management of the Franco regime’s past is a good example of the split between the two. Whilst the PP would rather forget the past and build towards a future, hoping the past will deal with itself, the more extreme Vox seem to have modernised symbols of the dictatorship that the PP never fully embraced.

The PP have built a reputation on being business friendly and modern whilst trying to be a home for conservatives of all stripes, this has however been tarnished in recent years by the very public cases of corruption. At one point the PP had more ministers in prison than it did in Congress.

Meanwhile Vox have embraced the pillars of nationalism. The Army, which has always been a point of contention, has been used by Vox as a rallying call for nationalists. Where Spain failed to deal with its past, conservatives have felt shamed by the left at every turn for their association with Franco. The PP was originally called the People’s Alliance and had ministers from the Franco era running in the first democratic elections since his death.

Where political correctness helped give rise to Trump in the USA, a similar thing is happening in Spain with the civil war. Vox are using the army to combat this with its use of imagery and rhetoric aimed at the communists who want to destroy this country, sounding very similar to speeches gave by generals during the civil war against the republic. Their military green masks with the Spanish flag on certify their nationalist credentials. Even their Facebook pictures have a military feel to them. They have also been investigated by the government for their interactions with the army.

Whilst many from the outside would think this protest is helping the right in Spain, it seems to be alienating the average citizen. Initially, the PP indirectly supported the makeshift protests in the Salamanca area with Isabel Ayouso, the president of the Madrid communidad, saying that it would get worse. However, since then the PP have been less supportive, and Vox have tried to capitalise on the movement. Yet it seems they came too late. After a week of the protests, the media found something new to concentrate on. In fact, polls showed that the majority of Spaniards support lockdown measures.

Fighting the Hype

On the day of the protest the government made two announcements that would combat any protest grabbing headlines. Sanchez knowing the country’s love for football announced the return date of La Liga (Spain’s biggest newspaper is Marca a football newspaper). They also pushed their policy of minimal vital income and said that it will be launched in the coming weeks. Whilst both will be welcomed and may have drew away attention from the car protest, many will question the launching of the economic benefit. Questions such as how it will be funded and when will taxes go up.

The benefit will try to bring Spain up to speed with the rest of Europe. Spain has never fully had a fully comprehensive welfare state like Germany or the UK. This new benefit is no different to family tax credits that the UK had in the early 2000s. It tops up family’s income depending upon their salary. And while this fact remains, this is a society that is not used to this type of benefit. Paro and pensions are high compared to other countries, but citizens have to contribute into the schemes to get the full benefit of them, Spain doesn’t have a fully fledged housing benefit or council housing.

The government will have to communicate this scheme clearly or it may well cement the stereotype of the left in Spain, which is that they cannot manage the economy well.

Things haven’t started well as around 900,000 people have not received payment from the Spanish governments furlough scheme. Some of these people have been returning to work without having had a payment. This was due to an overload of work at the Ministry of labour who claim to have processed 3.3 million payments up to a point in mid May.

Later the government would also announce that tourists would be able to return to Spain in July, which appears to have had a mixed reaction. Despite this, searches for hotels on the coasts have sky rocketed.

More Drama Please

A minor political drama by Spanish standards started on Wednesday 20th May in the late evening. A statement was released saying that the far-left, Basque independentist party EH Bildu were working with the coalition government to repeal the PP’s labour laws. While the coalition had already planned to do this, they used this issue to get the votes of EH Bildu in that day’s earlier vote on the state of alarm.

The statement also said that the Basque country would have different economic targets regarding the management of the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, which would be based on the region’s economic situation. The Basque country has a high quality of life and a great deal of financial independence when compared to other regions in Spain. More so, the combination of balanced financial policy and progressive social values gives the region a unique status in Spain.

The confusion become worse when the PSOE shared a further document just two hours later to clarify what the agreement between the parties was. This statement was a rewording of the original and changed the agreement from a complete repeal of the labour law to a recovery of rights that were lost due to the laws.

The labour reforms in question were brought in by the previous PP administration in 2012 to ‘free up the labour market’. They made it cheaper and easier for companies to fire staff and pay them less severance pay. It also weakened the union’s ability to take part in collective agreements. It gave company-based arrangements precedence over state-agreed sectoral agreements. These agreements set nationwide standards for employees and employers in various working sectors.

On the Thursday morning Pablo Iglesias gave an interview where he stated that the reforms would be in full. The PSOE stuck to their message that the rewording was to clarify what had been agreed. The Basque party also agreed that it was a ‘terminological’ change, but the overall agreement remained.

Later that day the CEOE, Spain’s biggest employer group, broke off talks with the government which had been set up to discuss the minimal vital income. This was in protest to the announcement of repealing the labour laws. Maybe the second statement issued was a last-ditch attempt to salvage this relationship. Obviously that never worked. However, this wasn’t the biggest upset to come from this drama.

To the Centre

Ines Arrimadas remote working

Cuidudanos have been moving politically under the new leadership of Ines Arrimadas, who also had a baby this week. Under the previous leadership and throughout the two elections of 2019, C’s moved from the centre to the right mostly in search of power. Whilst trying to feed off the Catalonia independence anger that swept through Spain in 2017/2018. C’s ended up getting into bed with Vox and PP, supporting both right wing parties in various regions to form administrations at the town hall and communidad levels. This included the Madrid town hall and the Andalucía administration. This ceded any credentials they had as being socially liberal. It has since become a yearly event in Madrid to chase them from the Pride march.

In the 2019 December elections, C’s lost most of their support, much to the delight of both the left and right. Their leader Alberto Rivera stood down as his gamble of trying to gain right wing votes had not paid off. This was because the PP moved back to the centre in the winter elections as they lost votes to Vox in the April 2019 elections, trying to outride them on the far right.

Seeing a polarisation on the right the C’s, under their new leader, seem to be moving back to where they came from: the pro-business centre. However, they are going to have a hard time throwing off any ill calculated political moves from the past. Supporting an anti LGBT party will be enough to put off many socially progressive voters that they originally attracted.

They also stood on a platform of anti-corruption in the past, yet revelations this week that their past leader lived in a hotel, allegedly at the hospitality of the hotel chain owner, whilst he was leader will put a dent in any anti-corruption credentials they once held. Pablo Echenique, a Podemos deputy, asked how many laws Rivera voted on during that time that would have benefited the Sarasola hotel chain.

Questions over Rivera’s connection to the hotel chain become apparent after a newspaper revealed the same hotel chain has been giving the PP Madrid president a subsided five-star room since her time in office begun last year.

Despite the bad press, C’s are trying to capitalise on the polarisation within the Spanish political arena. In recent weeks they have been seen to be working with the coalition government despite their dislike for Podemos. A more mature character has emerged and hopes to breathe life into C’s electoral hopes. With PP voters moving to Vox, C’s hope to pick up any that are not comfortable with the hard-line rhetoric of Vox’s leader Abascal. They may also pick up any disillusioned PSOE voters if this government takes a foot wrong.

Their new direction and maturity was put to the test this week by the government and its agreement to repeal the labour laws. C’s were not told about the agreement and voted with the government to extend the state of alarm on Wednesday. It was only after the vote that C’s found the government had been having talks with regional parties. C’s have been throughout their time as a political party, one that preaches unity within Spain, so the PSOE are really testing them by negotiating with the Basque party. In fact, they did not need EH Bildu’s votes to pass the state of alarm. Not only will the drama test C’s new approach, but it will also anger many of their backers who are pro business and will not want to see a repeal of the labour laws.

Despite the complex dramas that went on for three days, Ines Arrimadas surprised many when she said that they would continue to negotiate and work with the government, proving that their new direction will be a threat to not only the soft conservative voters of the PP but also the voters of the PSOE.

If C’s grow into a king maker party, then this will also put any dampener on the far left and far right chances of getting into power. At the moment the PSOE are supported by Podemos, but it is no secret that the PSOE party hierarchy and the EU would prefer a coalition government with a centrist party. This will obviously strain various right-wing coalition administrations at all levels of government and the more important one in the country which is keeping the left in office.

If Pedro Sanchez thinks that he can turn to the centre to avoid dealing with the demands of Podemos, then he may well do that. Podemos and C’s will also be aware of this and will have to play the game carefully. All whilst the opposition parties bite at their heels, hoping they fail.

Pedro Sanchez has since announced that they may consider lifting the state of alarm in certain areas on the country. This could play out either way but so far this administration has made it through the crisis, now comes another test: rebuilding the economy.

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