Ever since the PSOE and Unidas Podemos formed a governing coalition in January, Spain’s right-wing opposition has denied its democratic legitimacy. Calls for police mutiny and resistance against the COVID-19 lockdown show how the Spanish right is imitating its Latin American counterparts, seeking to create a climate of chaos that can bring down the government.
by Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz
Part 3 - A Spanish “Venezuela”
Doubtless, though, this crisis has destabilized the minority government. According to the Spanish constitution, the state of emergency necessary for the lockdown needs to be approved by a parliamentary majority every fortnight. After being approved three times, a further extension in early May was complicated by renewed opposition from the PP and Vox, as well as the Catalan-nationalist ERC. The PP’s Casado declared that the crisis measures — initially designed to contain the disease and prevent the collapse of the country’s intensive care units — were no longer necessary at a time when people were once again being allowed outdoors after the lifting of some measures on April 26.
He also accused Sánchez of hasty improvisation in lifting the lockdown — proclaiming that the PP would not tolerate the minority government’s “immoral” attempts to “hold Spaniards hostage.” Vox leader Santiago Abascal chimed in that the government was seeking to replace democratic normality with “a totalitarian one based on uncertainty that has brought Spain nothing but more death, more ruin, more unemployment, and less freedom.”
Like protesters in the United States who denounce the prevention measures as a tyrannical affront to liberty, the PP and Vox openly encouraged citizens to disobey the lockdown. Spain currently has a system of four stages of “de-escalation”; Madrid, being the worst-hit area, was not allowed to move from stage zero to one until June 1. Yet the regional PP government headed by Díaz Ayuso (and backed by Vox) claims that this decision to delay the reopening of Madrid was “politically motivated” rather than based on scientific evidence. In her view, the PSOE is using the levers of the central government to “control” the Madrid regional administration and to push through their policies against the interests of her comunidad.
On a similar note, Vox has tried to tap into the spirit of May 2 — the day that Madrid commemorates the city’s rebellion against Napoleon’s armies in 1808. It backs the caceroladas strategy of banging kitchen pots and pans every day at 9 PM to signal displeasure with the government. Vox’s dominant social media sound bite has been “Spain, wake up!” and “For less, we kicked out Napoleon troops, [Spaniards] wake up!” Indeed, in the weeks after May 2 spontaneous rallies emerged in the richest areas of the capital. People waving Spanish flags broke the lockdown rules and shouted for “freedom” and “resign, Pedro Sánchez.” This culminated on May 23 in a Vox-sponsored car rally to oppose the government, flooding central Madrid with chants of “Resign, Government,” “Freedom” or “We don’t want a Venezuela in Spain.”
Partly thanks to such chants, some observers have likened these street protests by Madrid’s gilded classes to the Chilean middle-class mobilization against Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. These parties’ invocation of a Venezuelan bogeyman is, indeed, ironic, given their aim to import the radicalism and militancy of the Latin American right into the Spanish context.
A constant of Spanish politics even before the COVID-19 crisis, references to Venezuela are today ever-present. For instance, at the height of the pandemic, Madrid’s regional government reached an agreement with Telepizza, one of the country’s largest food delivery companies, to provide pizzas every day to children in Madrid. Accused by Unidas Podemos of favoring a private company detrimental to children’s health, Díaz Ayuso averred that she preferred a meal from Telepizza than the “Venezuelan-style meals that Podemos would provide.”
Similarly, Vox leader Abascal has praised Trump’s designation of Antifa as a terrorist organization as a “brave decision” in total contrast to Spain where “the PSOE seat them in the ministries and the CNI [the Spanish’s CIA]” — a clear reference to their alliance with the antifascist Unidas Podemos.
A second Latin American comparison shines through in the Right’s use — and misuse — of the legal system as a stick with which to beach the government. In this, it has drawn inspiration from the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Brazil and Argentina, respectively. The PP and Vox maintain that the extent of the pandemic in Spain owes to the rally to mark International Women’s Day, and that the government was aware of this risk but allowed it to go ahead anyway, given its ideological zeal to support the feminist movement.
Last week, the judge Carmen Rodríguez-Medel opened legal proceedings in Madrid to ascertain whether this is true. The PP and Vox aim to bring the Spanish government to trial to try to force its fall. This case has opened up a severe crisis in Spain’s democracy. After Judge Rodríguez-Medel opened the case, she asked the Guardia Civil (military police) to submit a report on whether the government knew of the risks of allowing the March 8 rally. As the newspaper El Diario has shown, the report is full of mistakes, has manipulated witness statements, and presented fake news as evidence.
On May 25, the Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska dismissed the Guardia Civil chief Diego Pérez de los Cobos for “loss of confidence” because of his lack of “political neutrality.” The PP and Vox rejected this, accusing Marlaska of dismissing Pérez de los Cobos simply because he sent the report to the judge without informing the interior minister himself — insisting that he had been asked to acquiesce in what would have amounted to ministerial interference in the judicial system. On June 2, newspaper El Confidencial leaked that Marlaska dismissed Pérez de los Cobos for not “sharing” information with him regarding the judge’s case on the March 8 rally.
This has opened up a huge crisis between the Guardia Civil and the government — and further fueled the PP and Vox’s claims that the government is pushing through an “authoritarian” turn. On May 27, the PP general secretary Teodoro García Egea insinuated that anyone who investigated the Spanish government risked being removed or fired. He also defended the Guardia Civil’s actions — insisting that the government would fail in any possible attempt to abolish it.
For his part, Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias accused García Egea of promoting open rebellion among police ranks. At the time of writing, the second-in-command of the Guardia Civil has resigned, while the third-in-command was dismissed on May 28 by Grande-Marlaska in an open confrontation between the police forces and the government.
For PP leader Casado, the interior minister’s actions were something that only happened in “Latin American dictatorships” — here alluding to Venezuela. He proclaimed that the government would not be able to “gag the Spanish people, nor the media, nor social media, nor the street, nor the courts.” On June 2, the PP, Ciudadanos, and Vox demanded Grande-Marlaska’s removal after the El Confidencial revelations.