MADRID – Spain’s left-wing coalition government has averted — for now — a political crisis on top of the enormous challenge the country already faces from its devastating coronavirus outbreak, which has claimed more than 25,000 lives and severely damaged the economy.
Despite losing the backing of the main opposition party, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Wednesday received the Spanish Parliament’s necessary endorsement for a two-week extension to a state of emergency he declared on March 14, when Spain’s decentralized health care system had lost control of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We have won a partial victory against the virus thanks to the sacrifice of all,” Sánchez said. “No one gets everything right in such an unprecedented situation but lifting the state of emergency now would be a complete error.”
Sánchez said the state of emergency must stay in place to ensure that the country makes a coordinated and cautious return to a “new normalcy,” but his government lost some support from opposition parties who complain he is abusing his extraordinary powers.
To compensate losing the backing of the conservative Popular Party and angering Catalonia’s separatists, Sánchez’s Socialists struck last-minute deals with the center-right Citizens party and Basque regionalists to guarantee the parliamentary endorsement.
That gave the government 178 votes in favor to 75 votes against, with 97 abstentions.
The state of emergency was set to expire on Saturday. The extension will take it through May 24. The government argued the extension is critical to apply its complex rollback plan for the lockdown, which will vary by province as they prepare for a possible second wave.
Wednesday's debate on in the Madrid-based Congress that was limited in attendance to a few dozen members to limit risk of contagion was heated and may t bode well for the minority government, which will need to cobble together backing to handle the severe economic problems looming and a national budget.
The leading opposition party, Spain’s conservative Popular Party, which had supported the government on three previous extension votes until now, abstained while accusing Sánchez of violating citizens’ constitutional rights by continuing to restrict free movement.
“Our constitution establishes that the state of emergency cannot suspend any basic rights, but you have breached that limit repeatedly,” Popular Party leader Pablo Casado said. “The state of emergency made sense at the start of the pandemic, but it cannot go on indefinitely.”
An important separatist party from northeast Catalonia went further, voting “No” and aligning itself with two other smaller Catalan separatist parties and their alter egos on the political spectrum: Spain’s ultra-nationalist, far-right Vox party, the third largest in the chamber.
The Catalan separatists demanded that the government give back control of the health care system to the regions.
Vox blamed the government for the deaths of the virus.
“Maintaining the state of emergency won’t save lives or jobs. What will save lives is a change of government,” said Vox leader Santiago Abascal, adding that he will consider leading a no-confidence vote soon.
Sánchez was forced to call early elections last year when the Catalan separatists and parties of the right killed his attempt to pass a national budget. An inconclusive result to that April 2019 ballot led to another election in November and the eventual forging of a coalition of the Socialists and the anti-austerity United We Can party. It took power in January just as the virus appears to have begun its spread in southern Europe.
Spain hasn’t seen any public protests against the lockdown like in the United States. Overall, Spaniards have obeyed the strict stay-at-home rules that have only recently been loosened.
But even Sánchez’s allies warn him that as the strain on hospitals lifts and shops start to reopen, the government’s support for the state of emergency is crumbling.
The deals with Citizens and Basque regionalists PNV came with promises by Sánchez to work more closely with the opposition parties and the regional administrations, and to separate ambitious economic and social welfare aid packages from the state of emergency so they can remain place when it falls.
“Mr. President, use these next 15 days to get prepared,” PNV spokesman Aitor Esteban said. “Perhaps in all the phases of the rollback we won’t need a state of emergency.”
“You need a plan B because if not, what message are you sending to citizens? If we have another outbreak in September, October, that the only answer is to declare another state of emergency?” said Citizens leader Inés Arrimada, who came to the chamber for the first time since the start of the crisis because she is about to give birth.
Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak