COVID-19 BLOG SERIES: HOW EUROPE HAS RESPONDED TO THE CRISIS

 

Latest numbers indicate Spain has over 248 thousands confirmed cases and over 28 thousand deaths because of COVID-19. Since of 21st of June, the state of emergency has been deactivated, putting an end to the national control of the crisis and giving back control to the regions. The so-called ‘new normality’ will be soon in place in most of the Spanish regions. The lifting of the lockdown measures has also affected citizens’ perceptions of the crisis.

 

While the crisis is still perceived as the most relevant issue, the percentage of citizens indicating this has decreased from 43% in April to 26% in May (CIS ES3279, ES3281). Now that the situation is close to the ‘new normality’, what can we, political scientists, learn from the COVID-19 crisis in Spain? The COVID-19 ramifications in Spain are wide, but from my point of view, two particular aspects of the Spanish case are relevant for political science: the effects on government support and how it has highlighted the limitations of the current territorial structure.

 

In comparison to other European democracies, the levels of support towards the national government during the crisis, formed by a coalition between the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and United We Can (UP), have been lower than expected. Indeed, around 48% of citizens indicate they have little or no trust in the government strategy to fight COVID-19 (see Figure 1). This lack of trust in the current government could be explained by two main factors: one is the lack of experience of coalition government at the national level and the other the high level of polarization in the Spanish party system.

 

Spain has plenty of experience of coalition governments at the regional level but this has not been the case at the national level. Figure 1 shows that while citizens perceive the measures taken to fight COVID-19 as necessary, they don’t translate this trust to the government strategy. This lack of trust and experience in national government coalitions puts also more pressure on the parties involved in government to adopt the measures they promised, such as the approved minimum income, which had the support of all parties but the far-right VOX, a welcomed win for the government after the troubles to secure the necessary support to extend the state of emergency.

 

Figure 1. Citizens' perception on COVID-19 crisis management by the government

Source: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, ES3279 and ES3281.

 

On the other hand, the increased polarization of the party system incentivizes the opposition to be more antagonistic. The Spanish People’s Party (PP) stopped supporting the government measures halfway through the crisis. The party feels threatened by the advancement of VOX and needs to be recognized by voters as the only feasible government alternative. This became more relevant once the date for the regional elections in Galicia and the Basque Country was announced. Moreover, as Hípola and Padilla highlight, there seems to be a relationship between the ideology and the perception of the management of the crisis (left-wing citizens are more supportive). While most citizens consider that opposition parties should support the government measures and leave the criticism for after the crisis this percentage slightly decreased in May (from 88% to 75%) parallel to PP’s withdrawal of its support to government measures (CIS ES3279, ES3281). Thus, to understand the future implications of COVID-19 in Spanish politics, we should carefully analyse the dynamics within the party system and within the coalition government, and to what extent they challenge the current functioning of the political system.

 

This crisis has also illustrated the problems of coordination between the national and regional level in Spain, not only to apply the relevant measures at each stage but also to plan a joint strategy. The current territorial structure has often been criticized because the level of autonomy regions enjoy does not always satisfy regional claims and because of the limited cooperation between the national and regional level.

 

The latter has been even more problematic during the management of the pandemic. The state of emergency granted the control of the management of the COVID-19 to the national government instead of the regional one, which implied adopting similar measures to all the territories without necessarily considering the input of regional governments. While most citizens agreed with the national government being in charge of the management of crisis instead of regional governments, as the system of stages to lift the lockdown was implemented the support for regional management of the crisis increased (see Figure 2).

 

Figure 2. Citizen’s perception on which level should handle the COVID-19 crisis

Source: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, ES3279 and ES3281.

 

At the same time, the national government has been calling for unity to fight the pandemic, a unity necessary to approve the different measures to fight COVID-19 since they don't have enough support in parliament. While this had some success with the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), it has not been the case for other parties. Indeed, the relationship between the national government and the Catalan one continues to be heated (e.g., the Catalan premier has actively criticized the state of emergency as an attempt of the national government towards further centralization). Beyond who should have the final say over decision-making, the main problem has been the lack of cooperation between the two levels (see León’s report for an extended discussion on this in Spanish). The COVID-19 crisis emphasizes the need for further academic discussion on the future of the Spanish decentralized system, especially on what cooperation mechanisms should be put in place to overcome future challenges.

 

If anything, the COVID-19 crisis highlights how Spain still presents a very interesting case to learn more about multi-level political systems, including the dynamics of national and regional party systems and the vertical and horizontal cooperation between national and regional governments.

 

Author biography

Patricia Correa is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University and a member of the PSA's Spanish Politics Specialist Group. She tweets at @pcorreavilaImage credit: Pedro Sánchez/Flickr