Talk of Catalan pardons swells tensions in Spanish politics

Madrid Letter: Prime minister Pedro Sánchez weighing up cost of pardons

“Revenge” has become a buzzword in Spanish politics in recent days. Prime minister Pedro Sánchez warned against it as he insisted on the need for a moderate approach to the question of whether to pardon a group of convicted Catalan independence leaders.

“For me, revenge and reprisals are not constitutional values and they never will be,” the Socialist leader said.

The widespread interpretation of Sánchez’s comments is that in the next few weeks he will partially pardon nine jailed Catalan leaders. In 2019, they were found guilty of crimes that included sedition for their role in a failed bid for secession two years earlier.

The day after the prime minister spoke, the supreme court, which convicted and sentenced them, issued its own recommendation to Sánchez and his government not to pardon them. The supreme court’s advice, which is not binding, was that those convicted had shown no remorse and there was no judicial reason to lift their punishments.

Jorge Fernández Vaquero, of the AFJV judges’ association, upbraided Sánchez for suggesting that “the fulfilment of a final judicial decision by a public magistrate, and with guarantees”, should be characterised as “an act of revenge”. He added that this was a “false and very dangerous message”.

As has so often been the case with the Catalan issue, the boundary between the judicial and the political has become hazy.

Calming tensions

Sánchez's reasons for wanting to approve the pardons, which were requested by a labour union, an independent lawyer and three former presidents of the Catalan parliament, are clear. He has repeatedly talked of the need to calm tensions in the northeastern region, and the jailed leaders have been a major grievance of the independence movement. The jail sentences run from nine years to 13 years, in the case of former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras.

Also, Sánchez needs the support of at least some pro-independence deputies in order to maintain his multi-party, mainly leftist majority in the Spanish parliament. His approval of the pardons is widely seen as necessary in order to ensure the support of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which has just taken command of a new pro-independence regional government.

“They can shove [the pardon] where the sun doesn’t shine,” was the reported response of ERC’s Junqueras in 2019, when the idea of the measure was put to him. However, although the Catalan government would prefer the much less likely outcome of a parliament-approved amnesty, it now openly welcomes the idea of the pardons.

But while it could improve the atmosphere in Catalonia, the move is likely to be deeply divisive elsewhere. As the final decision on the issue looms, the right-wing opposition is preparing for what is expected to be an all-out assault on Sánchez. Having long labelled him an ally of law-breaking separatists, the parties on the right claim the pardons are the ultimate proof that the Socialist will put his political survival above respect for Spain’s constitution and territorial unity.

"You are prime minister of Spain thanks to those who want to finish Spain," said Pablo Casado, leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP). "You say revenge and reprisals are not constitutional values. But fulfilling the law is not revenge."

Internal criticism

Sánchez is used to receiving such criticism. But he is also starting to hear outspoken opposition to the pardons from within his own party.

“In these circumstances, I wouldn’t approve the pardon,” said Felipe González, the former Socialist prime minister, who has never been reluctant to make life difficult for his successors. More relevantly, some senior regional leaders in the party have expressed similar opinions.

Emiliano García-Page, the Socialist president of the Castilla-La Mancha region, described the hypothetical pardons as “a huge disgrace” that would be “one of the serious mistakes of the democratic era”. Beyond any moral arguments, leaders such as García-Page have political reasons to oppose the measure, given that the electorate in regions such as Castilla-La Mancha tends to have little sympathy for the Catalan independence cause.

A poll published by El Español news site recently showed that 80 per cent of Spaniards opposed the pardons, with that number dipping only slightly, to 73 per cent, when gauging attitudes of Socialist voters.

Government pardons have been a controversial feature of Spain's modern democratic era. In 1988, González pardoned Alfonso Armada, one of the ringleaders of an attempted coup, seven years earlier, that had left Spain's nascent democracy teetering on the brink.

Now, many will wonder if it is Sánchez’s government that is in danger of being destabilised as it counts the cost of shunning “revenge”.