Spain’s Post-Lockdown Culture War Has Only Just Begun

The coronavirus response has increased political polarization, threatening the country’s economic recovery.

Spanish deputies take part in a plenary session to discuss the "minimum vital income" plan approved by the government in Madrid on June 10.
Spanish deputies take part in a plenary session to discuss the "minimum vital income" plan approved by the government in Madrid on June 10. EUROPA PRESS/J. Hellín. POOL/Europa Press via Getty Images

For two months, Madrid’s citizens gathered on their balconies every evening to applaud the health care workers who have weathered the worst of the coronavirus pandemic in Spain. That changed last month in the capital’s richest districts, where well-heeled protesters brandished pots, pans, and Spanish flags and called for the government to resign—openly defying social distancing rules.

The demonstrations began with the richest 1 percent’s opposition to Madrid—the epicenter of Spain’s coronavirus outbreak—remaining on stricter lockdown as the government relaxed restrictions elsewhere. There have been more than 27,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 nationwide, but some protesters declared that they weren’t sure if the coronavirus was killing anyone. “We are in our rights not to believe a word they say. I haven’t seen a single coffin or autopsy,” one protester said. “This is a hoax to throw Spain into crisis and ruin us all.”

The protests marked the first shots fired in a post-lockdown culture war, with the country still raw from its harrowing experience with the pandemic. In Spain, the coronavirus has killed more people per capita than in any other country except Belgium and the United Kingdom, and the capital has registered 32 percent of the country’s COVID-19 deaths. But the Madrid community’s right-wing leader, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, has described the people of Madrid as “hostages.”

As these lawmakers prioritize leverage for future elections over labor reform to address precarity and unemployment, the politicization of the pandemic threatens its economic recovery. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez faces ad hominem attacks in parliament from the right rather than scrutiny of the slow response and lockdown that cost many lives. Meanwhile, Spain’s autonomous communities accuse Sánchez of centralizing power. Amid this discourse, the majority view among the Spanish public—that government and opposition should work together to fix the mess—gets lost.

The protests began on May 10 in Madrid’s Salamanca neighborhood and to a lesser extent in the suburb of Pozuelo de Alarcón—areas that once voted for Díaz Ayuso’s center-right Popular Party (PP) but are increasingly drawn to the far-right messaging of the upstart Vox party. “The main concentration of Vox voters in Madrid coincides exactly [with] where we are seeing these protests: the Salamanca neighborhood and the Pozuelo area,” said Carmen González Enríquez, a senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute. “Pozuelo is the richest municipality in Spain, and Salamanca is the richest area in Madrid.” The protests are dominated by older women who share plans for caceroladas—the banging of pots and pans in protest—via WhatsApp.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Spain’s right-wing opposition parties have argued that the Socialist-led coalition government is incompetent and dangerous—including charges that it allowed feminist rallies to go ahead on March 8. (That Vox held a meeting the same day is rarely mentioned.) The PP and Vox have never regarded the coalition as legitimate: Since forging an agreement with the far-left Podemos party in December 2019, Sánchez has relied on the backing of regional Basque, Catalan, and Galician parties, some of which want independence from Spain. The PP and Vox see any pro-independence grouping as illegally pushing for the breakup of the country.

In other European countries, opposition parties have broadly supported government measures to address the pandemic—even if they quibble over the details of the response. But in Spain, the rhetoric in parliament remains polarized, said Sandra León, a political scientist at the Carlos III-Juan March Institute in Madrid. “The underlying understanding of the situation for the opposition parties is basically the same: that this is an illegitimate government,” she said.

The pandemic has deepened the erosion of civility in Spanish politics. The right-wing parties’ attacks against Sánchez have increased alongside the death toll. Since the national government declared a state of emergency on March 13, Vox’s leaders have accused the government of turning Spain into Venezuela or North Korea. Meanwhile, the record so far for PP leader Pablo Casado stands at 37 insults in 15 minutes directed at the prime minister during a debate in May, including “manipulator, liar, incapable, awful, acting like Julius Caesar, incompetent, opaque, arbitrary … and a quack.”

The one-upmanship between the PP and Vox isn’t just intended for Sánchez’s government—it’s laying the groundwork for future elections. The far-right party has eaten into the PP’s vote share in the last two elections, and it oversees an effective online propaganda effort that has been successful among young voters. So when the PP calls Sánchez a liar, Vox says he is a traitor. When the PP calls on Sánchez to resign, Vox brings a court case against the government.

The government has taken note. “In Spain the opposition is facing the COVID-19 crisis as a space for electoral battle,” Idoia Villanueva, a foreign affairs spokesperson for Podemos, the coalition’s junior partner, wrote in an email. “The position of the right-wing parties and the far right is not only discredited, but [it] also seeks to discredit our democracy and the capacity of political parties to be useful for people’s needs.”

The right-wing battle for support is just one part of the culture war emerging from Spain’s long lockdown. The other axis of discontent is the ongoing tussle between the central government and Spain’s powerful regional governments.

The state of emergency centralizes many of the powers that are usually devolved to Spain’s 17 autonomous communities. The pushback was swift. “There is a lack of trust, especially with the Catalan president, Quim Torra, and PP president Díaz Ayuso in Madrid,” said Joan Esculies, a history professor at the Open University of Catalonia. “Every weekend in the meeting with the presidents of the communities, [Sánchez] has had to deal with ever greater criticism.”

In addition to fighting with right-wing politicians in Madrid and Catalonia, Sánchez has received criticism from fellow Socialists. The leader of the Valencian autonomous community, Ximo Puig, ordered medical supplies for the region himself after delays and shortages from the central government. “It doesn’t matter that in Valencia the president is a Socialist and the head of the Spanish government is Socialist, too. The Valencian president feels he has a responsibility to Valencian citizens and that they are going to ask for answers from him,” Esculies said.

Under normal circumstances, Spain doesn’t operate like a federal state such as Germany—but it is close. Sánchez speaks often of a “nation of nations,” but the recourse to centralization is proof for his critics in Catalonia that the devolved powers can be given and taken away at will. Any hopes from the pro-independence Catalans that the central government might cede more power have faded away.

Spain’s economy is facing disaster, and a unified response would help the government confront immense challenges: an expected GDP contraction of 10 percent and an unemployment rate poised to hit 19 percent. The country will welcome the announcement of $543 billion in European Union grants. But the economic shock will be long lasting, increasing already high levels of poverty.

The most worrying aspect of the post-lockdown culture war is its loud volume, which isn’t representative of public opinion. Spain’s parliamentary debates and media discourse are a cacophony of accusations and fake news. Meanwhile, 73 percent of Spaniards believe the central government should have handled the country’s outbreak from the beginning. A full 88 percent said they thought opposition parties should “leave criticism for another moment.” And 92 percent want new “Moncloa Pacts”—the deals struck by all of Spain’s main political parties in 1977 to agree on the political and economic reconstruction of the country after the fascist dictatorship.

The memory of previous bank bailouts and the failure to recoup nearly $30 billion in public funds means the government has a clear target for who will foot the public expenditure bill for the pandemic: the richest 1 percent. “We are proposing … not to cut public services, but also to create new taxes, at European and Spanish level, to ensure that the richest people are the ones who contribute more. We call it cutting from the top, rather than the bottom,” Podemos’s Villanueva said.

Expect a lot more pots and pans on the streets of Madrid.

Jennifer O’Mahony is a journalist and broadcaster based in Madrid. Twitter: @jaomahony