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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Deal granting amnesty to separatists sets off turmoil in Spain

People protesting in Madrid near Spain’s Socialist party headquarters last week over negotiations to grant amnesty to people involved with Catalonia’s failed 2017 independence bid.

By Jason Horowitz

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain sealed a deal to extend amnesty to Catalan separatists late last week in exchange for their political support, likely allowing him to stay in power but causing turmoil throughout Spain, doubts in Europe and questions about the country’s stability.

Sánchez, 51, who is currently acting as a caretaker prime minister after inconclusive snap elections he called in July, backed the amnesties related to an illegal referendum that shook Spain in 2017 to receive the critical support of the Junts party, which supports independence from Spain for the northern region of Catalonia.

With their support, Sánchez will likely avoid new elections, win parliamentary backing for another stint as prime minister and solidify his place in the European Union as its standard-bearer for progressive politics.

But the proposed amnesties, something Sánchez had previously said he would never do, triggered an uproar.

Earlier in the day, Sánchez’s allies, eager to avoid the appearance that the deal had been struck out of pure political calculation, sought to frame the proposal as instrumental in putting a tense and violent period of Spanish history behind the country.

It was “a historic opportunity to resolve a conflict that could — and should — only be resolved politically,” Santos Cerdán, a top negotiator with the Socialist Party, who had performed shuttle diplomacy between Madrid and separatist exiles in Brussels, said after the deal was announced. “Our aim is to open the way for a legislature that will allow us to progress and to build an open and modern society and a better country.”

The deal potentially marks a remarkable reversal of political fortune for Sánchez, who has made a career out of bold, long-shot bets but who seemed on the brink of a political abyss after his party received a drubbing in local and regional elections in May.

But the Junts party is not a reliable partner and has already made clear it will continue to seek to extract concessions in exchange for its support in close votes in parliament.

The deal, and the violence, came after thousands of protesters angrily surrounded the Socialist Party headquarters in Madrid in past days and called on Sánchez not to make a deal with the separatists, whom many conservatives consider an existential threat to Spanish nationhood.

The mainstream conservative Popular Party, which been expected to win elections over the summer but fell short of enough votes to form a government, has called for major demonstrations throughout Spain’s major cities Sunday.

It is about “privileging a minority to the detriment of a majority and ending the equality between Spaniards that is enshrined in the constitution,” said Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the Popular Party leader, who said Sánchez had clearly aligned himself with enemies of the state. “The humiliation to which Sánchez is subjecting our country is complete.”

In Brussels, the European commissioner for justice, Didier Reynders, sent a letter to Spain’s justice and presidency ministers about the “serious concerns” raised by the amnesty proposal.

In regional and local elections in May, Sánchez’s party took such a shellacking that he pulled the plug on his government, opting to try his chances with an early national election instead. He was expected to lose.

But while Sánchez did not come out on top in the July election, he and his progressive allies won enough support to stun the favored conservative and hard-right parties, depriving them of the necessary parliamentary support to form a government.

Sánchez, who has served as the prime minister since 2018, a position he won in a daring confidence vote, instead had a narrow path to building a government, but it ran right through the issue of Catalan independence, among the most prickly and fraught in Spanish politics.

In 2017, leaders of the Catalan separatist movement provoked Spain’s greatest constitutional crisis in decades when they staged an independence referendum that Madrid called illegal.

After enormous demonstrations in Barcelona and a tense national climate, the heads of the movement balked. Their leader, who was president of Catalonia at the time, Carles Puigdemont, fled the country and has remained in self-imposed exile in Belgium since. His allies have faced convictions.

But Thursday, Sánchez won the support of seven lawmakers from the Junts party that Puigdemont essentially leads, in exchange for the Socialist Party proposing a new law granting amnesty to him and everyone else in the failed independence referendum. The new law could affect many separatists who have been convicted or are currently facing trial for pro-independence activities.

The specifics of the agreement have not yet been made public, and it is expected to be proposed in the Spanish parliament next week. The deal was not a given and required more than two months of negotiations between Sánchez’s Socialist Party; his own, more progressive allies; and the Catalan and Basque independence movements that, despite a lackluster showing in July’s election, retained enough leverage to force a deal.

Puigdemont said Thursday at a news conference in Brussels that he would still support the cause of independence, and he celebrated the deal, saying that it took the issue out of the judiciary and brought it back in the public sphere where it belonged.

“It is a way to return to politics,” he said, “what is politics.”

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