Spain’s Socialist-led coalition government is expected to approve its hugely controversial pardons this week for the 12 Catalan independence leaders convicted two years ago over their roles in the illegal, failed attempt to secede from the rest of the country in October 2017.
The prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has said the pardons – which could be signed off by the cabinet on Tuesday – are needed to restore social and political coexistence and to help Spanish society “move from a bad past to a better future”.
The move, however, remains deeply unpopular with his opponents and the Spanish public. Sánchez’s political rivals have accused him of ditching his previous anti-pardon position, and of craven capitulation to the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left party (ERC), on whom his minority government depends for support in congress.
A recent poll for El Mundo found that 61% of those surveyed did not agree the pardons, and tens of thousands of people – including the leaders of the three parties on Spain’s right – rallied in Madrid last weekend to vent their fury.
Meanwhile Spain’s supreme court – which handed down jail sentences of between nine and 13 years to nine of the independence leaders and activists – last month issued a non-binding report opposing the pardons, saying the punishments were appropriate and noting those convicted had not shown “the slightest evidence or faintest hint of contrition”.
Despite the current anger, however, there are signs that the gamble could pay off over the medium-to-long term. The ERC, which leads the Catalan regional government and which is also the more measured and pragmatic pro-independence party, has signalled its support for the pardons, much to the annoyance of its hardline partners in the Together for Catalonia party.
The new Catalan regional president, Pere Aragonès, who is due to meet Sánchez this month for talks aimed at ending the political impasse, recently expressed a desire to find a negotiated solution, saying: “It won’t be easy – it will be extraordinarily difficult – but it’s our duty to the people of Catalonia.”
But the ERC is also being careful not to be seen as running headlong into the embrace of the Spanish government. Its leader and former deputy Catalan regional president Oriol Junqueras – who was sentenced to 13 years for sedition and misuse of public funds, and barred from holding public office for the same amount of time – said on Sunday the pardons were “a triumph that demonstrates some of the weaknesses of the state apparatus”. Junqueras also claimed the Spanish government was nervous about the appeals that he and the other convicted leaders are planning in the European court of human rights.
On Thursday last week, Sánchez received a significant fillip after the head of Spain’s main business lobby, the CEOE, said the pardons “would be welcome if they help get things back to normal”.
The prime minister will be in Barcelona on Monday to outline his “future project for all of Spain” at a conference. There is mounting speculation that a decision on the pardons could be announced the following day or, at the latest, the following Tuesday.
A source in Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ party told Reuters that a decision was imminent, and that the prime minister believed the pardons issue would fade out before the country votes in its next general election, which is scheduled for 2023.
The government is also hoping for a bounce in the polls as the EU Covid recovery funds – €70bn in grants and €70bn in loans in the next five years – pour in.
“It’s worth the political cost now and not a month before the elections,” a government source told Reuters. “We have to focus in the next two years on the economic issues.”