October 9, 2020

Europe

SPAIN: Politics Continue to Complicate Response to the Pandemic

BY Antonio Barroso

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Yesterday, 8 October, a regional court ruled against the recent restrictions introduced in the Madrid region to contain the resurgence in Covid-19 cases. As a result, the central government has declared today the state of emergency for the region. While the ruling is a blow for Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, his government’s fate still hinges on the approval of next year’s budget, the draft of which will be presented this month.

The restrictions struck down by the court were imposed by the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE)-Unidas Podemos coalition government after Madrid’s regional authorities led by the opposition People’s Party (PP) had refused to introduce them. Madrid’s regional Prime Minister Isabel Diaz Ayuso – a prominent conservative figure – subsequently challenged them before the court.

The situation in Madrid is a consequence of the politicization and the legal uncertainty that has characterized much of the management of Covid-19 in Spain. Since the end of the nationwide lockdown, Sanchez has let the regions assume the costs of handling the pandemic, especially as restrictive measures have become more unpopular. But when cases started to resurge in Madrid, Diaz Ayuso did not want to take the political pain from imposing a lockdown, opting instead for partial measures deemed insufficient by the central government.

The ensuing political game of chicken delayed the adoption of new measures and led to the central government’s unilateral decision. However, the existing legal regime for introducing restrictions requires authorization by the judges. Sanchez has discarded the possibility of changing the current system to make it more straightforward for regions to introduce new measures. The result is that the legal framework to manage the pandemic is still a major source of uncertainty, as shown by the Madrid case.

Going forward, the key question is whether a similar scenario could materialize in other regions where the opposition governs. In principle, most regional leaders have proven to be less combative vis-à-vis the central government than Madrid’s authorities. But the continued lack of legal clarity could still be a source of tensions, as regional politicians might not want to assume the cost of asking the government to impose the state of emergency when it is becoming increasingly clear that a reform of the legal framework is necessary.

Politically, the verdict is a blow for the ruling coalition, which this week was also hit by a judge’s request that the Supreme Court investigate Vice Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias (Podemos) over the alleged theft of an ex-colleague’s cell phone and the revelation of its contents. But the most immediate challenge for the government is still the approval of next year’s budget which is expected to be unveiled in the coming days. Sanchez promised this week during the presentation of Spain’s Recovery and Resilience plan that the government would be able to deploy EUR 23bn next year if the budget were to be approved. The sum means there will be considerable room for a compromise in parliament to ratify the accounts. But the ongoing political polarization continues to create the risk that Sanchez might fail to obtain the necessary parliamentary support.