Tens of thousands of supporters of Spain’s current opposition right-wing People’s Party (PP), led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, rallied in Madrid on Sunday against the possible plans by the country’s acting prime minister, the socialist Pedro Sánchez, to grant an amnesty to Catalan pro-independence politicians and activists, in order to keep himself in office following the inconclusive general election held on 23 July.
The rally comes just 48 hours before Feijóo himself faces an investiture debate and vote taking place in the Spanish Congress on 26-27 September, and which most Spanish media and political analysts say is ‘doomed’ to fail. ALSO READ: Sánchez rejects Feijóo’s request to back his premiership bid and two-year term proposal.
Waving Spanish flags, supporters of the PP travelled from across Spain to attend the rally in Madrid, with Feijóo joined by past PP prime ministers, Mariano Rajoy and José Maria Aznar. Authorities estimated the size of the crowd at 60,000. Supporters of the far-right Vox party, also opposed to amnesty and all other concessions to the Catalan pro-independence camp, did not attend the rally, according to Spanish media.
Sánchez, who came second in the July election, could stay in office if he wins the support of exiled former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, whose Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) party controls seven seats in parliament.
Puigdemont, wanted in Spain for attempting the region’s secession, has demanded that legal action be dropped against fellow separatists as a condition for his support. ALSO READ: Puigdemont demands ‘amnesty’ for all independence activists as ‘precondition’ for Sánchez’s investiture.
Feijóo, leader of the PP party and who won the most votes on 23 July, said he would never concede to demands for an amnesty for organisers of the 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia, which was held despite courts ruling it was illegal [see background to Catalan political conflict below]. ALSO READ: King Felipe instructs Feijóo to try and form government, yet without guaranteed support.
Withdrawing criminal cases against the pro-independence leaders and activists would amount to granting an amnesty to ‘coup plotters’, he told supporters at the Madrid rally.
Sánchez held his own political rally in Gava, near Barcelona, on Sunday. He did not mention an amnesty but said that his PSOE socialists wanted to heal social divisions over the Catalan crisis.
‘We are trying to turn the page,’ he told supporters.
Feijóo’s ‘doomed’ investiture bid
Feijóo will take the first stab at a vote to become prime minister on 27 September, but his chances of winning are seen as ‘doomed’ by most Spanish media, since the PP opposes any concessions to Catalan separatists. If Feijóo fails, Sánchez will get a chance to see if he can muster support. ALSO READ: With Sánchez and Feijóo both claiming victory in the election … what happens next?
The PP finally won 137 seats (up 48 from 2019) in the July election, but even with the support of the far-right Vox party (33 seats), it is not enough to secure the 176 majority required in the 350-seat parliament. Together with the support from two minor parties with one seat each (the Unión del Pueblo Navarra and the Coalición Canaria), Feijóo currently has the support of 172 MPs – in other words, four short.
The parliamentary debate begins on Tuesday with a speech by Feijóo followed by a first vote on Wednesday 27 September when he will need to secure 176 votes in favour. If he fails, he will then face a second vote on Friday when he will need a simple majority of more votes in favour than against.
Barring any unexpected surprises, Feijóo is not expected to pass either vote which will give Sánchez a turn to try to piece together a government.
If Sánchez is unable to pass an investiture vote within two months of Wednesday’s vote, Spain will face new elections, most likely in January.
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.
The amnesty controversy
JxCat’s main demand for its seven key votes in support of Sánchez is for an amnesty for hundreds of activists facing legal action over the 2017 failed Catalan referendum which sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.
Approving an amnesty, which would affect Catalan pro independence leaders who fled Spain to avoid prosecution over the independence bid, like Puigdemont — is an extremely sensitive political issue.
Granting an amnesty is not only a red line for the right and far-right parties but also for elements within Sánchez’s own socialist (PSOE) party.
Among the socialists opposed to the move are Castilla La Mancha’s regional leader and former premier Felipe Gonzalez, who on Wednesday said: ‘We must not let ourselves be blackmailed.’
Sánchez has yet to speak publicly about the amnesty issue.
‘I will be faithful to the policy of normalisation in Catalonia,’ he said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, referring to his efforts to calm separatist tensions in Catalonia since taking office five years ago.
Vamos a seguir defendiendo el legado de los demócratas.— Alberto Núñez Feijóo (@NunezFeijoo) September 24, 2023
El martes, si quieren, discutimos si los españoles han votado cambio o no. Lo que no votó el 94% de los españoles fue un cambio en el régimen constitucional.
Es un fraude agravado. pic.twitter.com/cdnZrH4GrV