Why is the amnesty deal by Spain’s government contentious? | Explained

Demonstrators hold ‘Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez traitor’ signs during a protest called by the right-wing opposition against an amnesty bill for people involved with Catalonia’s failed 2017 independence bid in Madrid on November 12.
| Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: Spain’s socialist (PSOE) government struck a contentious amnesty deal on November 9 with the hardline Catalan separatist party, Together for Catalonia, to enable another four-year term for caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

What is the deal about?

The chief of Together with Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s former regional president and a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), is the unlikely kingmaker who could break the country’s political deadlock since the inconclusive elections in July. A fugitive from the Spanish justice system, now in self-imposed exile in Brussels, he faces six to 12 years in jail for an embezzlement charge linked to the failed Catalan referendum in October 2017 that was declared unconstitutional. Mr. Puigdemont has dangled the carrot of his seven seats in exchange for an amnesty for him and hundreds of others in connection with the secessionist agitation. The clemency legislation must be tabled in Parliament for Mr. Sanchez’s investiture, but its approval is not a given.

Why is the amnesty proving divisive?

Mr. Sanchez views the offer of amnesty as a route to defuse the protracted crisis arising from the movement for an independent Catalon state. However, this move is the exact opposite of his earlier stance that a broad amnesty for the separatists was unacceptable. Moreover, in 2021, the Prime Minister controversially granted pardon for nine jailed separatists. The centre-right People’s Party (PP) and the far-right Vox have dubbed the current deal as an opportunistic ploy by Mr. Sanchez to retain power.

Critics contend that the withdrawal of penalties against those involved in the unconstitutional referendum would undermine the principle of equality before the law. Spain has witnessed widespread protests which is a reminder of the outpouring of anger during the secessionist movement. The judiciary has voiced concerns over the move, with one judge even pointing to Mr. Puigdemont’s association with Democratic Tsunami, a group engaged in violent activities, as amounting to terrorism.

Why not hold another election?

There is no certainty that another general election would produce a decisive outcome. Spain has come to exemplify the wider European phenomenon of post-electoral stalemate, underpinned by a steady erosion of the two-party system and the mushrooming of smaller parties on the extreme right and left of the political spectrum. Spain had gone into election mode twice in the space of six months, in December 2015 and June 2016. A second ballot had become inevitable only because a governing combination could not be established after the first vote. Consequent to the June 2016 ballot, there was relatively greater longevity of parliament but only in purely technical terms. The centre-right government of Mariano Rajoy was defeated in a vote of no confidence on corruption charges in June 2018, within two years of taking office. Mr. Sanchez then became Prime Minister, only to step down in February 2019, well before the end of the four-year parliamentary term, as he failed to secure the legislature’s approval for the annual budget. Then, in a repeat of past events, Spain would hold elections twice in a single calendar year. The ballot in April failed to result in any government and led to the elections of November 2019. Negotiations following the second ballot led to the formation of the current coalition. Four months since the elections in July 2023, there is no clarity on the shape of Spain’s next government. While the PP emerged as the single largest party in seats, it failed to garner the numbers even with the backing of Vox.

Will another Sanchez govt. rise?

Nothing is off the table. The PSOE government is currently allied with extreme left parties, including Basque and Catalan separatists. Although MPs from Together voted against the formation of the Sanchez coalition in 2019, they have since extended backing for crucial legislation. Given Mr. Sanchez’s dealings with left-wing parties since 2018, concerns over the cost from collaboration with secessionist parties may be overblown.

The writer is Director, Strategic Initiatives, AgnoShin Technologies.

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