Faced with political opposition to the state of alarm it declared in mid-March to battle the coronavirus, the Spanish government is seeking to extend its emergency powers by framing an upcoming vote in Congress as a choice between “state of alarm or chaos.”

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who heads a minority coalition government with the leftist Unidas Podemos, will seek another extension to the emergency declaration that underpins one of Europe’s tightest lockdowns. The state of alarm must be approved by Congress every two weeks, and the current period ends on May 9.

The government has been easing some of the confinement measures in recent days as part of a gradual deescalation plan, and now allows citizens out for walks and exercise for limited periods of time. On Monday, small businesses reopened under certain conditions. Spain has been one of the world’s hardest hit countries, with Covid-19 claiming 25,428 lives according to the official count, which does not include people who died with symptoms but were not tested.

But the leader of the main opposition Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, said on Monday that “prolonging the state of alarm beyond a 60-day period makes no sense.” And the head of Ciudadanos (Citizens), Inés Arrimadas, has asked the Spanish leader for an exit plan from “a constitutional tool that facilitates the restriction of fundamental rights.” A day earlier, regional leaders also rejected the idea of prolonging a situation that temporarily increases central powers to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

Counter-attack

On Monday, the government went on the offensive with the message that if the PP does not vote in favor of a new extension to the state of alarm on Wednesday, it will be dodging its responsibility, since the PP holds power in several key regions such as Madrid, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The state of alarm is indispensable. And it works, There are 22 countries with similar systems,” said Health Minister Salvador Illa at a news conference on Monday afternoon. “Let’s not conduct experiments that could lead to chaos.”

Health Minister Salvador Illa (l) and Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos at a joint press briefing on Monday.
Health Minister Salvador Illa (l) and Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos at a joint press briefing on Monday.EFE

Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos went further. “I ask the PP not to allow itself to get dragged down by those who rely on hoaxes,” he said, alluding to the far-right party Vox, which is the third-largest force in the lower house of parliament. “If it does, it will have to answer to citizens if there is greater contagion. For the PP to wash its hands of the decree of alarm is tantamount to condemning us all to chaos.”

The executive still believes that the extension will get greenlighted in any case, because the opposite would require a collective “no” vote from the PP, Vox, Ciudadanos and the Catalan separatist parties Together for Catalonia (JuntsxCat) and Catalan Republican Left (ERC), an unlikely scenario.

Instead, the Sánchez administration is trying to turn the vote into an image problem for the PP, which is the only European opposition party that does not support an extension to an extraordinary measure that serves to limit citizen movement.

“The prime minister has explained to Casado that if the state of alarm is no longer in effect, some people will have to go back to work, others back to their studies, and the ERTEs [temporary layoff schemes that guarantee jobs will be maintained] will no longer have a force majeure reason to justify them,” insisted Ábalos. “All efforts would be lost, because we would lack the legal framework. Casado has not offered an alternative plan because there is none.”

Ambiguous position

Casado has not yet made it clear which way the PP will vote, but he has suggested that his party might abstain. “At the present time, with the information in our power, we cannot support this extension,” he said in a radio interview on Onda Cero.

“The government is taking Spaniards hostage and we will not tolerate it. It is immoral,” he added, alluding to the fact that the ERTE temporary layoff scheme will be state-funded as long as the state of alarm remains in place. Hundreds of companies have filed for ERTEs since the beginning of the pandemic, either sending home or reducing the working hours of their employees.

Ciudadanos leader Inés Arrimadas at a video appearance on Sunday.
Ciudadanos leader Inés Arrimadas at a video appearance on Sunday. EFE

The PP leader feels it is possible to keep central power and mobility restrictions in place without the need for the state of alarm. “Sánchez must adapt existing legislation on public health, civil protection and national security so that the single healthcare command and the mobility limits between provinces can be implemented without the limits to fundamental rights involved in a state of alarm.”

Inés Arrimadas, leader of Ciudadanos – a center-right party affiliated with the European liberals – wants to see an exit plan from the state of alarm. In a virtual news conference, Arrimadas asked the government to disassociate the state aid for self-employed workers, employees and businesses from the state of alarm. Just like Casado, she did not specify which way her party will vote on Wednesday but said that Ciudadanos will act “responsibly” and “will not endanger Spaniards by taking away their protection.”

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