Via Financial Times

As Spain’s parliament prepared to prolong the government’s powers over the country’s two-month lockdown, Blanca Carrillo de Albornoz took to the streets of one of Madrid’s smartest neighbourhoods to protest, a Spanish flag thrown over her dress and a pan lid in each hand.

She — and thousands of others in the district of Salamanca and beyond — bang pots and pans at 9pm every night to signal their disapproval of the lockdown and the Socialist-led government that imposed it. The protest often lasts longer and is much louder than the now sporadic applause for health workers.

“This government has to resign now,” said Ms Carrillo de Albornoz, an interior designer, as she strained to make herself heard over the combined noise of several hundred fellow demonstrators and a police helicopter hovering above. “They are governing by decree, and you can’t govern a country by decree.” 

Now that coronavirus infection rates and the daily death toll are diminishing in Spain, fear is being replaced by anger. The nation’s polarised political tribes are fighting over the lockdown, its loosening and the aftermath.

Passions are highest, and the battle lines most clearly cut, in some of Madrid’s wealthiest districts, where protesters have been accompanied by members of the hard-right Vox party.

“The Spanish government is trying to eradicate the country by converting it into a dictatorship like Venezuela,” said Ignacio Boné, a law and international relations university student, gesturing at the police officers standing by the demonstration in the Salamanca district. “It’s a communist government that doesn’t let us demonstrate in the street — this police deployment is idiocy.”

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The protests, generally of a few hundred people at a time, are growing, despite the police deployments to ensure social distancing. They have spread to the street outside the Socialist party’s headquarters.

Tempers in Madrid are further inflamed by a clash between Pedro Sánchez’s government and the administration of the region, which has been denied permission to loosen the lockdown in line with most of the rest of the country. 

That impasse has led Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the regional government chief, to describe Madrid’s 6.6m inhabitants as “hostages”. Mr Sánchez’s government responds that it is concerned by a resurgence of infections in the country’s most densely inhabited region, which has the highest accumulated number of cases and deaths, and that more time is needed to bed in an early-detection system for the virus in Madrid.

A protester gestures at a poster of Pedro Sánchez who is likely to win parliament’s backing for a further two-week extension of the state of alert © Joaquin Corchero/EUROPA PRESS/dp

The government makes little attempt to sugarcoat its view of the protesters. “There are some countries like Italy where the citizens are demonstrating because certain social needs aren’t being met,” said María Jesús Montero, Spain’s budget minister and government spokeswoman. “But what the [demonstrations] are asking for in Spain is freedom of movement; that is to say, freedom of contagion.”

Podemos, the radical left party that is the junior partner in the coalition, has been even more acidic. “As ridiculous as the ‘demonstrations’ of the upper class may be — hitting road signs with golf clubs and silver spoons — this thing is serious,” said Pablo Echenique, the party’s spokesman in parliament. “A privileged minority cannot ignore the rules and endanger us all.”

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But government critics say the demonstrations now range far beyond the well-heeled parts of Madrid that have long opposed the Socialists and are profoundly alarmed by Podemos.

“If these protests began in what the government calls upper-class neighbourhoods, I don’t want to even think about what will happen in industrial and working-class areas in some months’ time,” said Alvise Pérez. The anti-government activist recently unfurled a giant, six-storey poster of Mr Sánchez as Big Brother in an apartment building near Madrid’s prestigious La Castellana avenue. 

What angers protesters like him and Ms Carrillo de Albornoz is the so-called state of alert — the extraordinary legal order that gives the minority coalition wide-ranging powers to deal with the crisis. 

Many accuse the government of abusing its temporary decree-issuing powers through steps such as giving Pablo Iglesias, the Podemos leader, a seat on the body that co-ordinates the intelligence services. Others recall comments by a top law enforcement official last month — which the administration described as a misstatement — that he was “seeking to minimise the hostile climate to the government crisis-management”.

Nevertheless, Mr Sánchez is likely to win backing in parliament on Wednesday for a further two-week extension of the state of alert, after striking a deal with the pro-market Ciudadanos party. Under the accord, the government will look at alternatives to the measure rather than merely seeking to renew it once again. 

But there is every sign that the tensions that have built up during the lockdown will remain even when the state of alert is history.

According to a poll for the ABC newspaper this week, just over 50 per cent of people believe that the government’s decisions on which regions it allows to loosen the lockdown are based primarily on political considerations. Pablo Montesinos, a leading MP in the main opposition People’s party, questions why the government publishes neither the names of the officials responsible for such decisions nor the reports that serve as their basis. He added that the protesters’ “anger at government lies and inefficiency” was legitimate but that they had to observe social distancing.

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Ms Montero, the government spokeswoman, highlighted a separate survey this week by Spain’s publicly funded Centre for Sociological Research showing overwhelming support for the country’s measures against coronavirus. But that research also indicated that the 46 per cent of the population with confidence in the government was outweighed by 48 per cent with little or no confidence. 

“This crisis came to a country that was already deeply polarised and it has deepened the divisions between left and right,” said Lorenzo Bernaldo de Quirós, president of Freemarket, a Madrid-based consultancy.

At present the polls indicate that the centre-right PP has grown most in support during the lockdown as Vox has lost backing. Under new leadership Ciudadanos is shifting from solely denouncing government policy to trying to temper it. But Mr Bernaldo de Quirós argues that the political confrontation will only intensify.

“One thing is highly likely,” he said. “When the lockdown finally ends we are going to have massive protests with pots and pans by the right and huge counter-demonstrations by the left.”