May 20, 2020 / 7:03 AM / 14 days ago

Discontent bubbles in Spain even though coronavirus cases wane

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain’s fragile left-wing coalition won backing from political foes to extend a state of emergency on Wednesday as public protests simmered over economic damage and social restrictions during the coronavirus outbreak.

People wearing protective face masks bang saucepans as they attend a protest against the Spanish government's handling of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis, in Alcorcon, Spain, May 20, 2020. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

Even though deaths are slowing and Spain hopes to mostly lift a strict lockdown by the end of June, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez sought to keep special powers for two more weeks to control the easing of restrictions.

“No one has the right to waste what we have achieved together,” Sanchez said.

He narrowly passed the measure with the help of small parties, but in some neighbourhoods of Madrid, Barcelona and other cities people walked in the streets banging pots and pans in protest at restrictions on when people can leave their homes.

“We need the truth, this isn’t normal not letting us walk around ... The government has no plan, there are millions of people out of work,” Cristina, a public school teacher who usually votes for the Socialist party, said at one demonstration in Alcorcon, southwest of Madrid.

Groups of up to a few hundred, draped in Spanish flags, have been gathering daily at 9 p.m., sometimes violating social-distancing rules.

Initially associated with the far-right Vox party, the protests began in Madrid’s wealthy Salamanca neighbourhood and spread to cities such as Seville and Zaragoza.

With the Bank of Spain forecasting the tourism-dependent economy to contract by up to 12.4% in 2020, frustration is bubbling up.

Conservative People’s Party leader Pablo Casado accused Sanchez of wrecking the economy and pledged to block his minority government’s legislative agenda.

In recent days protesters have gathered outside the homes of ministers including Transport Minister Jose Luis Abalos and the home shared by Vice President Pablo Iglesias and Equality Minister Irene Montero.

Spain has recorded 27,888 deaths and 232,555 infections, but new fatalities have slowed to under 100 a day.

Pockets of discontent have been breaking out elsewhere in Europe, from businesses demanding aid to some more overtly political demonstrations.

“Say no to dictatorship” and “Stop health fascists” have been some of the slogans on banners in largely right-wing-organised protests in Germany that have capitalised on rising unemployment and unease over lockdown.

One demonstration in Stuttgart drew tens of thousands.

But in France and Italy, both hard-hit by the pandemic, protests have been notably rare. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s approval rating remains high even though his nation was the first to be locked down in Europe.

Slideshow (4 Images)

“The difference between Spain and other countries in Europe is that the level of polarisation was already very high before the crisis,” said Pablo Simon, a political science professor at Madrid’s Carlos III university. “The coronavirus is exacerbating it.”

The risk from this, the analyst said, was that it obscures legitimate criticism. “If the debate is whether the government is waging a coup or not, there’s no space to raise questions on concrete things like the use of face masks,” he said.

Spain has eased restrictions to allow children outdoors and some shops and beaches to reopen. But it has a quarantine for overseas travellers and ordered all citizens, including children over six, to wear masks in public.

Reporting by Inti Landauro, Julien Hennequin, Nathan Allen, Emma Pinedo, Jessica Jones and Ingrid Melander in Madrid; Madeline Chambers in Berlin; Christian Lowe in Paris and Gavin Jones in Italy; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Grant McCool

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