Spain’s Right Wing Sees Coronavirus Crisis as Opportunity

Conservatives have framed women’s rights rallies in March as a source of contagion, threatening to undermine the surging feminist movement.

Protesters take part in a march on International Women's Day in Madrid on March 8.
Protesters take part in a march on International Women's Day in Madrid on March 8. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Spain’s right-wing politicians are blaming a series of feminist rallies held in March for spreading the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 27,000 lives nationwide. While any mass gatherings in early March—from protests to soccer matches—could have served as vectors for the spread of COVID-19, Spanish conservatives have focused their criticism on the International Women’s Day protests. It is a political point-scoring strategy that could further polarize Spain’s gender equality debate. It also threatens to deepen the ideological divisions that have worsened with the rise of the far-right Vox party, which became the third-largest force in parliament after elections in November 2019.

Equality campaigners say the focus on the March 8 rallies —known as the “8M” protests in Spain—is part of a growing backlash against feminism that could stall progress on women’s rights. The protests are central to a left-aligned feminist movement that has surged in Spain over the last two years, calling for action on issues from sexual violence to equal pay. Vox has taken direct aim at the feminist agenda while accusing activists of stoking hatred against men and disparaging the March 8 protests as a propaganda tool of the Socialist-led coalition government.

This year’s rallies were particularly significant for the left. They took place days after the new government approved a landmark bill reforming Spain’s sexual assault laws to redefine rape as any sex without consent. Around 120,000 people marched in Madrid on March 8, chanting “No es no, lo demás es violación”—“No means no, everything else is rape.” The scene was repeated across Spain. Six days later, the government declared a state of emergency as coronavirus cases escalated and imposed a strict lockdown.

Vox and the main opposition center-right People’s Party have since framed the rallies as a principal source of contagion and accused Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s left-wing government of putting its feminist credentials above public health. The Madrid regional leader for the People’s Party, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, dubbed the marches in the capital “Spain’s biggest infectodrome.” The party’s health spokesperson said that by encouraging people to attend the 8M demonstrations, the government had turned Spain into an “epidemiological bomb.”

The comments echo conservative news sites, which have also portrayed the rallies as a spark for Spain’s outbreak. “The 8M feminist protests continue to claim victims,” the right-wing media outlet Okdiario said after the women’s rights campaigner África Lorente Castillo died from COVID-19 on May 1—linking Lorente’s death to the march in Catalonia that she led 10 days before she was hospitalized.

Some right-wing politicians and their supporters are using the crisis as an opportunity to undermine the movement as a whole. The attempt to “demonize” activists taps into the wider social desire to attribute blame for Spain’s coronavirus outbreak, said Viviana Waisman, the CEO and founder of the women’s rights campaign group Women’s Link Worldwide. “They’re creating a narrative around a common enemy,” she said.

The health ministry had confirmed 10 deaths from COVID-19 and hundreds of infections on the day of the protests, but they were not the only crowded event to go ahead. Vox held a counterprotest for thousands of supporters on March 8. Major soccer matches took place on the same day, including a clash between Real Madrid and Betis in front of packed crowds in Seville. Bars, shops, and restaurants remained open, and public transport was running. Yet the right wing has chosen to characterize the March 8 protests as driving the coronavirus crisis.

Vox party leader Santiago Abascal described the protests as a “grave” for thousands of virus victims. Meanwhile, the party has apologized for its own March 8 rally but blames the government for hiding information about the health risks. The government denies the accusations: “We acted when the facts dictated it, when the escalation of infections and deaths and the pressure on hospital intensive care units started to grow,” Rafael Simancas, the secretary-general of the Socialists in parliament, told Foreign Policy. On Monday, a judge charged the government’s representative in Madrid, José Manuel Franco, with “administrative prevarication” for allowing mass gatherings to go ahead just before Spain declared a state of alarm.

Feminists say that while Spanish officials should not escape scrutiny, the focus on the protests by right-wing critics is disproportionate. “Whether the government was justified in permitting the rallies should be investigated, but that is just one of many questions,” said Noemí López Trujillo, a journalist covering gender and social issues for the website Newtral. She said the right has characterized the feminist movement as a vector of disease and that women who attended the marches are now targets of online criticism. “People attack us a lot for having participated in 8M, suggesting we are guilty of everything that has happened since,” López said.

The controversy over the March 8 rallies underscores how feminism has become a fault line in Spain, where the already stark divide between left and right has sharpened with the rise of Vox. “In Spain, the opposition is always slightly more than an opposition—it questions the legitimacy of the government,” said Berta Barbet, a postdoctoral political science researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. “Even in this crisis, what we’re seeing is an underlying ideological debate.” Positions on gender equality have increasingly become part of the culture war between the two camps.

Public support for Vox is a reaction to the advance of progressive politics in Spain. Since the Socialists took power in 2018, Vox has gone from having no parliamentary representation to holding 52 seats, feeding off conservative anger that the government is moving too far left. For the right, feminism is seen as emblematic of this left-wing ideology. The Socialists have made gender equality central to their platform, with Sánchez saying he wants to see a “feminist Spain.” His party’s main coalition partner, the far-left Podemos, has a strong feminist agenda: It championed the new anti-rape bill as a flagship policy. The bill itself responded to two high-profile gang rape cases that catalyzed Spain’s new wave of feminism.

At the other end of the spectrum, Vox has called for the repeal of Spain’s gender violence laws. It alleges that the legislation discriminates against men because it deals specifically with male partner violence against women. Vox argues that the government is promoting an ideology that fosters division between the sexes. At the party’s March 8 rally, Abascal said a rise in rape figures proved government policy was not protecting women.

In Spain’s polarized political landscape, the conservatives have moved further right as Vox has gained popularity. In some regional parliaments, the People’s Party and the pro-business party Ciudadanos have formed alliances with Vox in order to govern. Some analysts say the shift to the right by the more moderate parties could undermine the country’s broad political consensus on women’s rights, such as the state pact to combat gender-based violence backed by the center-right parties.

Other divisions are already emerging. The People’s Party boycotted last year’s March 8 protests, saying they had become dominated by the left. To boost its gender equality credentials, the party did send a delegation this year, but some senior party members stayed away. A group from Ciudadanos attended the rallies in Madrid but left after being heckled by protesters. Party leader Inés Arrimadas has criticized the movement for alienating women with different political ideologies.

“We can’t think that feminist public policy only comes from a center-left government.”

López argues that finding common ground is essential, and dismissing the People’s Party and Ciudadanos as “anti-feminist” could hinder progress by ruling out future alliances. “We can’t think that feminist public policy only comes from a center-left government,” she said. But she is concerned that some right-wing rhetoric threatens fundamentals widely accepted in Spanish society, such as the need to tackle femicide or to improve working conditions for women.

Despite pressure from right-wing forces, Spanish civil society will keep pushing for change, said María Solanas, the director of programs at Madrid’s Elcano Royal Institute. “I think there’s still a majority consensus, at least in Spanish society and in many European countries, on the importance of closing the gaps and achieving societies where men and women can be equal at all levels,” she said.

But as reactionary groups gain traction worldwide, the threat of backsliding is significant. Of particular concern is a backlash against sexual health and reproductive rights. Solanas cited the Trump administration’s withdrawal of U.S. funding for the United Nations Population Fund, which it accused of promoting abortions. In Spain, reproductive health care is also being questioned by the right. Vox seeks to repeal legislation passed in 2010 under a previous Socialist government that allows the termination of a pregnancy during the first trimester. The current leader of the People’s Party has said he supports limiting abortion to combat Spain’s aging population.

Despite the gains by feminist activists in Spain, the targeting of fundamental women’s rights by conservative political forces complicates an already slow and difficult path to equality. Now the fight is on to stop the clock turning back.

Laura Mannering is a journalist based in Spain. Twitter: @lauramannering

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