Hundreds of thousands of Spanish citizens are protesting in the streets to fight against a strategic deal between the former and newly elected Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the Catalonian Independentist Party, Junts per Catalunya.
Catalonia, one of Spain's wealthiest regions, famous for its summer destination capital, Barcelona, and its independent spirit, has been the face of many Spanish political debates. The crisis of its independence escalated in 2017 when pro-independence president Carles Puigdemont held a referendum to separate Catalonia from Spain. The organisers announced that 92% of voters supported the independence; however, the participation rate of eligible voters was only 43%. The leaders still declared the independence of Catalonia.
Nonetheless, the Spanish Constitutional Court deemed this referendum illegal as it went against the 1978 Constitution, highlighting the "indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation." As a result, many pro-independentists faced heavy convictions. The former Catalan president self-exiled to Belgium as he faced charges of rebellion and sedition.
Carles Puidgemeont now has a pathway to return to Spain after making a deal with Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. But how does Mr Sanchez, who expressed his "personal and political convictions" against the amnesty law for independence in July of this same year, justify it now, only a few months after?
The Buildup and Aftermath:
The amnesty agreement between Mr Puigdemont and Pedro Sanchez was made public after the 2023 national elections. These elections were held early on July 2023, months before the intended date. This was due to a considerable loss in regional and local elections by the Prime Minister's Party PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party), which was falling behind the centre-right Popular Party (PP) in major cities. However, these "chaotic elections" were held during the hot Spanish summer, when many people were on vacation. While citizens could vote by mail, there were scandals involving supposed fraud in the mail system. Surprisingly, however, the participation rate was higher this year compared to the last 2019 elections, with an increase of 4.17 percentage points from around 66% to 70%.
The Spanish parliamentary system requires a minimum of 176 seats out of 350 in the Congress of Deputies for a party to win the national elections. A way of obtaining these 176 seats is by forming a coalition government with other parties. The leader of the party or coalition that has the majority in the Congress becomes the Prime Minister.
However, the 2023 elections had no clear winner, with PP as leader (33.05%) and PSOE right behind (31.70%). These results led to a parliamentary deadlock as the PP’s attempted coalitions were insufficient to win enough seats since, to form a majority, they needed the support of regional and independent parties, all of which are against VOX, the far-right party, PP's primary partner. PSOE had the same challenge and, despite making agreements with five other parties, fell short of forming a government. To avoid repeating the elections, PSOE sought a deal with the Catalan nationalist party led by Mr Puigdemont, Junts. With the seven votes from Junts, PSOE successfully achieved a majority coalition, and Pedro Sanchez was then re-elected as Prime Minister on November 16.
The coalition with Junts did not come that easily, as Junt's priority is Cataluna's independence. Therefore, Pedro Sanchez made deals to win over Junts in the elections and is now doing negotiations to guarantee their continuous support in Parliament. However, this has not been a smooth process.
A pivotal deal to this alliance was the proposed amnesty law, which sparked protests in Spain. This government's act of forgiveness will liberate many separatists who were convicted for their pro-independence activities (deemed unconstitutional) between January 2012 and November 2023. This law will also free Mr Puigdemont, leader of the Junts party, from his self-exile. On another note, it does not cover crimes resulting in death and torture. Other demands from Junts to the new government are to relieve debts of 15 million euros from Catalonia to Spain, give it more autonomous control, keep more tax revenues and initiate discussion for a new referendum.
However, this amnesty law has yet to be passed through Congress and will still need to be passed by the Senate, where the Popular Party has a majority; thus, enforcing the law will be challenging. In addition, once implemented, PP has announced that they will take the law to the Constitutional Court, which could potentially suspend it if proven unconstitutional.
Finally, Sanchez will be running a minority government, and the votes of Junts will be crucial for all future legislation. They will undoubtedly use their parliamentary weight to push towards an independence referendum in Cataluna. Thus, there have been debates about whether this new minority government will last the four-year term due to its unstable alliances and conflicting priorities.
Two Opposed Visions:
Spain's new amnesty law is sharply splitting the public's opinion;
On the one hand, Pedro Sanchez and his party justify this deal by highlighting that this will de-escalate the political situation and help resolve a conflict that has been going on for decades and dividing the country. Besides, it is not Spain's first amnesty law; in 1977, politicians agreed to move forward from the Franco dictatorship and made a "Pact of Forgetting", which allowed political prisoners and all those who committed crimes not to be prosecuted. This law was part of a broad move to transition from a dictatorship to a democracy. It was generally accepted as a necessary step for national reconciliation and moving forward in post-dictatorial Spain. However, in 2012, the United Nations strongly opposed this 1977 amnesty law as it was seen to obstruct the investigation and prosecution of crimes against humanity committed during Franco's regime.
On the other hand, some see Prime Minister Sanchez as a traitor to the constitution and unity of Spain. Around 60% of Spanish people say that the amnesty law is unjust as it is perceived as a strategic move for Pedro Sanchez to win the elections due to the high chances of losing if elections are held again. It is hard for this segment to perceive the change in the law as a true act of pardon, as it has only come up for the need to get seven more seats to form a government. Additionally, people who voted for the PSOE feel betrayed by Pedro Sanchez, who is contradicting his past statements against an amnesty law for the independentists.
The complexity of this political scenario raises several considerations;
Does this law align with constitutional principles, as it allows political decisions to influence judicial outcomes? Ultimately, it implies that political agreement may override legal rulings and sanctions. Then again, might this resolve a political situation strongly debated for decades? Could this new law potentially challenge the ability of Catalan politicians to convey a dark image of Spain, especially if they are part of the government? Moreover, is there a constitutional basis for the 2023 law in the amnesty law of 1977, even though the two contexts are entirely different? Or can this amnesty law backlash in the future and set precedents for future political negotiations impacting legal decisions?
If the amnesty law is enacted, it could position Spain at a crossroads between legality and political strategy, potentially advancing Catalonia one step closer to its independence. That said, only time will tell what consequences this law will truly have.