Hundreds of thousands protest Spanish prime minister’s deal with separatists
By Jason Horowitz
Hundreds of thousands of incensed Spaniards responded to the call of conservative parties Sunday and packed squares across the country to protest a deal that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a Socialist, reached with secessionists to grant them amnesties in exchange for the political support required for him to retain power.
“The office of prime minister of Spain can’t be an object to be bought and sold,” Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the conservative Popular Party, said at a rally in Madrid as tens of thousands of supporters waved Spanish flags and held signs that read, “No to Amnesty,” and “Sánchez Traitor.”
While the nationwide protests amounted to a last-ditch — and all but doomed — effort to stop Sánchez from again becoming prime minister, they reflect the new and hazardous political landscape that Sánchez will have to manage.
Fragmented, and fragile, coalitions are becoming more common in Spain, which had long been accustomed to more stability. The issue of independence for Catalonia in northeast Spain, which seemed to have died down since an illegal referendum shook the country to its core in 2017, has reemerged as the dangerous fault line running through Spanish politics and society. The protests, which included myriad signs appealing to the European Union for help, underlined the irony of Spain having, in Sánchez, a progressive, pro-unity favorite in Brussels whose government is built on the support of separatists.
“Sánchez is going to tell the others in Europe that the right-wing parties don’t respect democracy, but it’s not true,” said Almudena Calvo, 34, who held a sign reading “Sánchez Traitor, SOS Europe,” and argued that Sánchez was the threat to democracy. “He is selling our country to those who want to destroy it.”
The protests punctuated volatile months in Spanish politics.
Sánchez, 51, a wily politician known for his audacious bets, had called an early election after his party was pummeled in local elections in May. He gambled that he would have a better chance of winning earlier, rather than waiting and continuing to bleed electoral support.
And while Feijóo’s party came out ahead of Sánchez and his Socialist party in that July national election, no single party received enough support to govern alone, requiring the formation of a coalition with enough parliamentary votes to govern.
The conservatives had depended on a strong showing by the hard-right Vox party. But its anti-LGBTQ+ policies, climate change skeptisicm and deep nationalism appeared to spook Spanish voters, especially women, and the effort tanked. As a result, the conservatives could not muster enough support to govern.
Sánchez, despite not coming out on top, could prevail by stitching the Catalan separatists to his progressive and far-left coalition.
“He is cutting deals with people who don’t want to be Spanish,” said Maria Jesus Fernández, 59, as she held a Spanish flag and walked in front of the headquarters of the Popular Party, which she voted for, on the way to the Puerta del Sol square for the rally. She said the separatists would not stop making demands on the prime minister and that he would be captive to them. “His hands are cuffed.”
To cut the deal, Sánchez had to break his word — something his critics say he has no problem doing — and extend amnesties to hundreds of Catalan separatists who had staged an illegal referendum in 2017 for independence. First among them is Carles Puigdemont, the leader of the independence movement, who has lived for years in exile in Brussels. His Together for Catalonia party, known as Junts, has just seven seats in parliament, but Sánchez desperately needs them to govern, giving Puigdemont outsize leverage.
That kingmaker role for Puigdemont infuriates many Spanish voters, and not just nationalists or conservatives. They view him as a criminal who brought Spanish unity to the brink of collapse in 2017.
“Puigdemont to prison,” the demonstrators in Madrid chanted. “Sánchez to prison.”
Previous demonstrations in recent weeks have turned ugly, with right-wing soccer hooligans and other extremists infiltrating the crowds. Some protests organized by Vox turned violent as its supporters vandalized the Socialist party’s headquarters. On Saturday, Pedro Gil, 57, walked in front of the headquarters, protected by 11 riot vans and the police as he headed to the protest.
“The deal is corruption,” he said, with a Spanish flag tied around his waist. He said the prime minister’s deal with Together for Catalonia essentially put the secessionists above the law. Nevertheless, he acknowledged with a shrug, “Sánchez is going to be president, of course.”
As early as this week, parliament is expected to vote to give Sánchez, who has enough support, a new term in office. While the details of the deal that cleared the way for him were not clear, it appears to allow self-exiled separatist leaders, including Puigdemont, to return to Spain, and possibly even run for office again.
The Junts party has said that it will continue to press for a referendum on Catalan independence but that it will no longer do so unilaterally and illegally. Instead, it will, as the constitution stipulates, seek the authorization of the prime minister, parliament and Spain’s king. To the fury of many of the protesters Sunday, the Junts will continue to demand that Catalonia, a wealthy region, keeps more of its tax revenues.
Hana Jalloul Muro, who heads international policy for the Socialist party, said the deal was a reflection of the dialogue that had made the party popular in Catalonia and “lowered the tension” there. It would disarm the explosive secession issue, bringing more, not less, unity to Spain, she argued.
When asked about Sánchez’s apparent about-face on granting amnesties, she said, “You need to do things related to the time and moment you are in” and blamed the conservative calls for people to take to the streets for undermining the legitimacy of the system.
“I ask them to respect the result at the ballot box and the legitimacy of the government we will soon form,” Sánchez said Saturday. “I ask them to be brave and to say no to the bear-hug of the far right.”
Those claims were widely mocked and scorned by conservatives in Spain’s plazas Sunday.
Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Vox party, which underperformed in the election that saw the independence movements they loathe empowered, called the deal a “coup d’état in capital letters” that has led to the “most delicate moment in Spanish politics in the past 40 years.”
At the end of Sunday’s rally, where Abascal was not a featured speaker, he turned and left immediately while supporters, in de facto preppy uniforms of crisp button-down shirts, gray V-neck sweater vests and light-blue jeans, chanted “Abascal, Abascal” around him. He stopped for the national anthem before leaving the square.