Francina Armengol, the candidate proposed by Spain’s PSOE socialist party, was elected by MPs as the parliament’s new speaker on Thursday morning, which has been seen as an important win for Pedro Sánchez in his fight to be re-elected as prime minister.
Armengol, 52, was elected with an absolute majority of 178 votes in the 350-seat chamber, her election secured following a last-minute deal with the Catalan pro-independence party Junts per Catalunya (JxCat), which has been cast in the role of ‘kingmaker’ for Sánchez to form a new government, following an inconclusive general election held on 23 July.
In what was widely seen as a nod to the Catalan parties, Sánchez had proposed Armengol as parliament speaker. She was regional president of the Balearic Islands, where Catalan is widely spoken, from 2015 to 2023.
The 178 votes came from the PSOE, Sumar, the Basque and Galician nationalist parties, in addition to those of the Catalan JxCat and Esquerra Republicana (ERC) parties,
Thursday’s vote is widely seen as a trial run ahead of a crucial investiture vote – which determines who forms the government – expected next month. ALSO READ: With Sánchez and Feijóo both claiming victory in the election … what happens next?
In July’s general election, neither the left nor the right won the 176 seats necessary for a working majority in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies – with each side only able to amass the cross-party support of 171 MPs.
The election result has put JxCat in an influential position, for how its seven MPs voted on Thursday, and how they will vote in the investiture debate – will be decisive.
Shortly before the session began at 9am on Thursday, Spanish media reported that JxCat had reached a last-minute deal to back Armengol, the PSOE candidate.
‘Everything suggests Francina Armengol will get more votes than Cuca Gamarra,’ public television said before the vote, referring to the candidate proposed by Alberto Núñez-Feijóo’s right-wing People’s Party (PP), which came first in the election. ALSO READ: Spain’s right-wing PP win the election, but not a majority, even with far-right Vox.
Now that Armengol has been confirmed as the new Speaker, Sánchez is one step closer towards being re-elected as prime minister.
Catalan agreement and further demands
The vote on Thursday reportedly came after 11th-hour deals with the two main Catalan pro-independence parties, JxCat and ERC, both of which have seven MPs each.
While ERC has favoured dialogue with the previous PSOE-Podemos coalition government in Madrid, reaching agreements over the past four years, hardline JxCat has favoured confrontation.
The JxCat-PSOE agreement includes allowing MPs to use Catalan in congressional debates as well as further investigation into alleged spying on Catalan officials, and the August 2017 terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils in exchange for support for Armengol.
The ERC-PSOE deal includes making Catalan official in Spanish and European institutions and also getting to the bottom of the Pegasus spying scandal. ALSO READ: ‘CatalanGate’: politicians, activists accuse Spain of ‘huge & illegal’ spying.
A preliminary document sent to the press made mention of a potential amnesty for people who face charges for the independence push, but ERC retracted that from a subsequent version, which only referred to ‘putting an end to the repression of the independence movement through the necessary legal channels’.
JxCat leader Carles Puigdemont, who is in exile in Brussels and is an MEP, had demanded on Wednesday solid guarantees before offering his party’s support to Spain’s next government.
‘We have no confidence in Spanish political parties,’ he wrote on X (formerly Twitter). ‘We cannot move forward on the basis of promises made by those who always fail to keep them, so we need to see solid guarantees before committing to vote.’
Puigdemont, 60, headed the government of Catalonia at the time of the thwarted secession bid, which involved an illegal referendum followed by a short-lived declaration of independence. He fled Spain shortly after to avoid prosecution and currently lives in Belgium from where he leads JxCat.
‘The critical points of our position have not varied,’ Puigdemont had said on Wednesday, adding that he wanted to see guarantees from the Socialists before announcing his party’s position.
Puigdemont wants Spain’s incoming government to guarantee it will help hundreds of separatists facing legal problems for their part in his breakaway bid of 2017. He also wants Madrid to authorise a referendum on independence for Catalonia.
The referendum is a non-starter for Sánchez and his right-wing rivals. Sánchez, however, has pardoned high-profile separatists and reformed laws to give some legal relief to separatists as part of his agenda to lower tensions in Catalonia (see background to the political conflict below).
Sánchez also pledged on Wednesday to promote the use of Catalan, Basque and Galician within Europe – a long-running demand of nationalist parties.
‘Spain speaks Castilian Spanish but also Catalan, Basque and Galician,’ he told a gathering of newly elected socialist MPs.
‘We are going to promote the use (of these languages) within EU institutions in a commitment I will carry out during Spain’s presidency of the European Union,’ he said of the role Spain took over on 1 July.
Background to Catalan political conflict
Nine Catalan politicians and activists were jailed for between 9-13 years by the Spanish Supreme Court in October 2019, convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds for their role in the 2017 illegal referendum, with the verdicts causing widespread protests across Catalonia. In June 2021, the nine walked free from prison, following pardons granted by the government led by socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, but they remained banned from holding public office.
Late last year, Spain passed a controversial criminal code reform that downgraded the two charges used against them, abolishing sedition and replacing it with that of aggravated public disorder, and also reducing the penalty for misuse of public funds.
Misuse of public funds can carry prison time of between six months and up to five years if convicted, but disobedience only carries a disqualification from public office.
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