Spain’s toxic pandemic politics

Art by Annie Gugliotta

Last Friday, as millions of Spaniards prepared to travel for a national holiday long weekend, residents of Madrid were told to stay put as the left-wing national government declared a fresh state of emergency to curb rising coronavirus cases... overruling the capital region's conservative leader, who wanted only a partial lockdown to avoid deeper damage to local businesses.

As is the norm in Spanish politics nowadays, each side accused the other of playing politics with a public health crisis that has killed nearly 33,000 Spaniards. It's just the latest example of how increasingly poisonous politics are infecting a country now struggling to contain a second wave of COVID-19 while enduring the deepest economic crisis in nearly a century.

Pandemic mismanagement. After Italy, Spain became the second major European country to impose a draconian national lockdown against the coronavirus in March. But soon after the curve of infections and deaths flattened, socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pushed to reopen — much faster than Italy — in time for the summer tourism season.

Once COVID-19 cases started surging again, the minority coalition government had its hands tied: any enforceable nationwide plan required support from either conservative opposition parties, or from Basque and Catalan nationalist forces.

With few other options, the prime minister delegated to regional leaders. The poorly coordinated response failed to prevent a second wave of the coronavirus, prompting other European countries to tell their citizens to stay away from Spain.

Political impasse. Let's step back for a moment. COVID-19 arrived in Spain at a politically fragile moment, less than two months after its minority coalition government took power following two national elections in 2019 that failed to yield a parliamentary majority. But the political stalemate continues: while the current government has full executive authority, it remains dependent on smaller parties outside the cabinet for the voting majority needed to pass laws.

Catalan separatists, in particular, have so much leverage that, to get his national budget approved, Sánchez has dangled pardons for Catalan separatist leaders who are now in jail for unilaterally trying to break away from Spain in late 2017.

On the other side of the aisle, the conservative opposition is fragmented and mostly unwilling to work with Sánchez. The establishment Popular Party hopes to weaken him enough to win the next election in 2023, but popular support for the socialists has remained steady. Meanwhile, the far-right Vox party continues to rise in the polls with its populist rhetoric against Podemos, the leftist junior partner of the coalition government, over its support for an independence referendum in Catalonia and (alleged) links to Venezuela.

Economy takes a back seat. While Spanish political leaders bicker, the economy is taking a beating. GDP is expected to contract by more than 12 percent this year, the worst decline in the European Union, with tourism and hospitality — which together represent a quarter of the economy — as the hardest-hit sectors.

Spain faces sky-high unemployment and a wave of bankruptcies when the government runs out of money for ailing businesses and furloughed workers. It's too early to say whether a pilot universal basic income program has kept most low-income Spaniards out of poverty.

The government has pinned hopes for economic survival on the 140 billion euros (more than $163 billion) that Spain will get from the EU's coronavirus rescue package. However, most of the money will not be disbursed until at least next year, and is tied to structural economic reforms on the labor market and pensions that Sánchez is reluctant to approve.

The bottom line: No matter how bad things get, though, Sánchez isn't going anywhere. Only an impossible coalition of conservatives and moderate nationalists could remove him before 2023. Even then, the Spanish political representation system — which favors regional parties and punishes fragmentation — means a new vote probably won't swing the balance of power in parliament.

Spain's problems are obvious. Solutions are anything but.

That's Bank of America's new target in its Environmental Business Initiative in order to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy.

Here's how it will drive innovation to address climate change.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

More Show less

Should the Biden administration "reverse course on China" in the hope of establishing a friendlier relationship, as diplomat Kishore Mahbubani argues in a recent Financial Times op-ed? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Michael Hirson take out the Red Pen to explain why it's not that simple.

And today, we are talking about the United States and China. The relationship between the two most powerful nations in the world is the worst it's been since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Pundits and policymakers alike all around the world are trying to figure out how Washington and Beijing can at least stop the bleeding because a reset is nowhere in the cards.

That's the topic of the op-ed that we are looking at today. It's from the Financial Times, written by Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, and the title summarizes the key argument: "Biden should summon the courage to reverse course on China." Meaning, he should throw out the Trump era approach and open the door to more cooperation and kinder, gentler relations.

More Show less

More than a dozen COVID-19 vaccines have been fully approved or are currently in early use globally, and COVAX, the global initiative started last year by the World Health Organization and other partners, is pushing for equitable access to vaccines for all. But most of the half billion jabs given so far have gone to citizens of wealthy countries, with half going to the US and China alone. What's the problem with so-called vaccine nationalism? Ian Bremmer explains that besides the clear humanitarian concerns, the continued global spread of COVID increases the risk of new mutations and variants that can threaten the entire world, vaccinated or not.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Should wealthy individuals and nations shoulder more of the burden in addressing climate change? Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert argues that Big Tech leaders like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk should shift more of their focus to fighting for our own planet's survival, instead of space exploration. "We're doing as much as we can to make life difficult on planet Earth for ourselves. But there's virtually nothing we could do to make it as difficult as life on Mars, where there's, among other things, no oxygen." Kolbert, the author of Under a White Sky, discusses why it's so crucial for a few rich countries to bear most of the climate burden, since they're also the biggest emitters. Her conversation with Ian Bremmer is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting this Friday, April 16. Check local listings.

In recent days, Northern Ireland has seen some of its worst street violence in over a decade. The anger has subsided a bit this week, but post-Brexit fears leave many uncertain about their future in a deeply divided land with a long history of political violence between Irish republicans and UK unionists.

More Show less

Fighting climate change is about making the planet get less hot. The more quickly countries slow down their carbon emissions, the faster that'll happen. All the more important for the nations that pollute the most — but not all of them are on board. Although the majority, including China, are setting future targets to go Net Zero, India doesn't want to commit (yet) to when to stop burning fossil fuels to spur economic growth. We take a look at when the world's top polluting economies intend to go carbon-neutral, compared with their share of global emissions, of renewable energy as a source of electricity, and percentage of global coal consumption.

Peruvian runoff: Perú's presidential election is going to a runoff in June between two surprise and polarizing contenders, each of whom won less than 20 percent of votes in a highly fragmented first round. Pedro Castillo, a far-left union leader and teacher who benefited from a late surge in the polls, will battle rightwing populist Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the country's imprisoned former strongman. Castillo wants to rewrite the constitution to weaken the political influence of the country's business elite and maybe to allow the state to nationalize parts of the mining sector to pay for social programs for the poor. Fujimori wants to use mining revenues to create jobs by investing in infrastructure and healthcare. The runoff will probably be a national referendum on Fujimori, a divisive figure running for the top job for the third time. No Peruvian president has ever left office without facing corruption charges, but Fujimori already faces several — and she'll avoid jail time if she wins.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal