Coronavirus: Protests and political tension grip lockdown Spain

Nightly pot-banging protests and rising political tensions piled pressure on Spain's minority government as it sought to lead the nation cautiously out of lockdown and tackle the economic chaos triggered by the pandemic.

Coronavirus: Protests and political tension grip lockdown Spain
Protests have taken place across Spain. Photo; JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

Unlike many other European countries, the government has come in for a barrage of criticism over its handling of the coronavirus crisis, only managing to secure its latest extension of the lockdown on Wednesday by just 15 parliamentary votes.

And the debate ahead of the vote was hostile and acrimonious, with opposition leader Pablo Casado, who heads the rightwing People's Party (PP), not mincing his words.

“You are the epitome of chaos and the worst thing is that you are unable to protect the Spanish people without resorting to this brutal confinement,” he said, addressing his words to Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

READ: Museums, hotels and bars to reopen in Madrid, Barcelona

This time, the party voted against the extension, unlike in the previous four votes when it supported the move or abstained.

Sanchez's government, which holds just 155 of the 350 parliamentary seats, says the measure is essential to restrict movement as the country cautiously begins emerging from lockdown in a staged rollback that will finish in late June.

To obtain the latest extension, Sanchez sought support from small regional parties and from the centre-right Ciudadanos which recently made a U-turn on its previous opposition to his government.

But in accepting the support of Ciudadanos, known for its tough stance on separatist parties, Sanchez has drawn the ire of those parties whose backing ensured he would be sworn in for another term in January.

“The spirit of the investiture (has vanished), perhaps irrevocably,” said Gabriel Rufian, parliamentary spokesman for the ERC, Catalonia's oldest and largest separatist party, before voting no. 

READ: In the absence of tourists, Spaniards reclaim their cities

'Constantly in crisis'

Sanchez's coalition is “constantly in crisis because it needs the support of one party or another because it's a minority government in a context where there has been no political truce” despite the pandemic, said Paloma Roman, head of government studies at Madrid's Complutense University.

“In boxing terms, it's fighting in two rings at the same time — against the pandemic while holding its normal political battle,” she said.

The situation worsened on Wednesday night when it emerged that the government had made a deal with the Basque separatist party Bildu to secure its abstention.

The party is reviled by some sectors of Spanish society which see it as the successor of the banned political wing of the former armed separatist group ETA.

But the deal has also exposed friction between different members of the coalition, with the hard leftwing Podemos, the junior coalition partner, saying they had agreed to repeal a labour reform approved by the PP government in 2012.

But Sanchez's Socialists quickly moved to qualify the statement, saying the deal would only involve a “partial” repealing of the controversial law which gave firms more flexibility to dismiss workers.

“The most shocking thing is a government that has no internal unity, with a majority hanging by a thread at a time when we urgently need” to tackle the economic chaos caused by the pandemic, said political scientist Fernando Vallespin.

“We are in the worst possible situation” because there is “no alternative majority,” he said.

A bad example

The political tensions are playing out before a public that is “much tenser than normal” following 10 weeks of lockdown, said Roman in a nod to the nightly protests in a number of cities including Madrid, Malaga, Zaragoza and Sevilla.

Banging pots, the demonstrators have hit the streets demanding “freedom” and Sanchez's resignation, accusing the government of restricting rights and mismanaging the epidemic, which has now claimed around 28,000 lives.

MAP: These are Spain's provinces advancing to Phase 1 and Phase 2

The protests have been firmly backed by the far-right Vox, which has secured authorisation to hold its own “car demonstrations” that will see various convoys of vehicles gathering on Saturday in Madrid and other cities.

Although drawing small numbers, the protests are feeding into the growing climate of political unrest, said Euprepio Padula, an expert in political leadership.

“When you see images like we've seen in parliament, with threats and provocations, you can't expect that this won't be reflected on the streets,” said Padula.

“The example which has been set is deplorable.”

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Spain’s middle-class youngsters the most likely to end up poor across all EU

Spain leads the ranking of EU countries with the highest risk of young people ending up in poverty as adults, despite coming from families without economic difficulties.

Spain is the fourth EU country with the highest inherited poverty
Spain is EU country with most middle-class young people who end up poor. Photo: Jaime ALEKOS / AFP

Spain is also the fourth EU country with the highest rate of inherited poverty risk, according to Eurostat, the EU Statistical Office.

Data on intergenerational poverty indicates that there is a correlation between the financial situation of the household you grew up in and the risk of being poor when you reach adulthood and in Spain, there is a strong link. 

The latest statistics available from 2019 show that the at-risk-of-poverty rate for the EU was 23 percent among adults aged 25 to 59 who grew up in a poor financial situation at home when they were 14 years old. This is 9.6 percentage points more than those who come from families without financial problems (13.4 percent). 

READ ALSO: Spain’s inflation soars to 29-year high

How the situation in Spain compares with the EU

Spain has become the EU country with the highest risk of poverty among adults who grew up in families with a good financial situation  – 16.6 percent.

This was followed by Latvia with 16 percent and Italy with 15.9 percent.

That statistics also show the countries where it is less likely to be poor after growing up in households without economic difficulties. These include the Czech Republic (5.9 percent), Slovakia (7.9 percent) and Finland (8.5 percent).

The overall poverty rate in the EU decreased by 0.1 percentage points between 2011 (13.5 percent) and 2019 (13.4 percent), but the largest increases were seen in Denmark (1.9 points more), Portugal (1.8 points), the Netherlands (1.7 points) and Spain (1.2 points).  

On the other hand, the biggest decreases in the poverty rate were seen in Croatia (-4 percent), Lithuania (-3.6 percent), Slovakia (-3.5 percent) and Ireland (-3.2 percent).

READ ALSO: Spain’s government feels heat as economic recovery lags

Inherited poverty

The stats revealed that Spain was also the fourth country with the highest rate of inherited poverty risk (30 percent), only behind Bulgaria (40.1 percent), Romania (32.7 percent) and Italy (30.7 percent).

This means that children of poor parents in Spain are also likely to be poor in adulthood. 

The countries with the lowest rate of inherited poverty risk were the Czech Republic (10.2 percent), Denmark (10.3 percent) and Finland (10.5 percent).

The average risk-of-poverty rate for the EU increased by 2.5 percentage points between 2011 (20.5 percent) and 2019 (23 percent), with the largest increases seen in Bulgaria (6 points more), Slovakia and Romania (4.3 points), Italy (4.2 points) and Spain (4.1 points).

The biggest drops were seen in Latvia (-8.5 points), Estonia (-8.0 points) and Croatia (-2.3 points). 

The largest gaps in people at risk of poverty when they reach adulthood were in Bulgaria (27.6 percentage points more among those who belong to families with a poor economic situation as teenagers compared to those who grew up in wealthy households), Romania (17.1), Italy (14.8), Greece (13.5) and Spain (13.4).