19th May 2024
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez
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Pedro Sánchez faces backlash and tough legislature ahead due to Catalan deal

Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez – who is now certain to be officially reinstated in power after an investiture debate and vote to be held next week – is facing a fierce backlash from opposition parties and the country’s judiciary for signing a pact with the Catalan pro-independence parties, and his coalition government is set for a tough legislature ahead. ALSO READ: The PSOE and Junts sign a pact that will guarantee investiture of Pedro Sánchez.

By agreeing to grant an amnesty to all those facing legal action for their involvement in the Catalan illegal referendum held in 2017 and for other actions carried out ‘between 2012 and 2023’ – in return for the support from the Esquerra Republicana (ERC) and Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) party (led by the fugitive Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont) – Spain’s opposition leaders have accused Sánchez of being a ‘traitor’, a ‘dictator’, of ‘giving in to blackmail’, and of ‘humiliating the judiciary’.

Amnesty bill and ‘lawfare’

A draft ‘amnesty bill’ is expected to be put forward in the Spanish Congress on Monday – ahead of the investiture debate and vote on Wednesday and Thursday. Few details have been released of the full amnesty proposal, which will still have to be debated and approved by Congress, once Sánchez is officially in government again. The European Commission has even asked for more detailed information on the proposal. However, the idea is that the amnesty will end the legal cases against Puigdemont and thousands of others who took part in organising the illegal referendum of 2017 or participated in subsequent protests, some of which turned violent, when Spain implemented a crackdown in response.

An amnesty would in theory also allow the five Catalan ex-leaders who are still abroad, including Puigdemont, to return to Spain and even run for office again someday.

Under the deal signed on Thursday between the PSOE socialists and JxCat, both parties also recognise their vastly different points of view on the Catalan political conflict but agree to work together to resolve it. JxCat says it will propose holding another self-determination referendum but agrees to not do it unilaterally, as in 2017. Instead, it will be under Article 92 of the Constitution, which requires the authorisation of the prime minister, the Congress and the monarch – and which is highly unlikely to be granted. JxCat has also demanded that more tax revenues stay in Catalonia, one of Spain’s richest regions, similar to agreements signed with the Basque Country and Navarra regions.

In an earlier agreement on amnesty between the PSOE and the more moderate ERC, signed 10 days ago, Sánchez’s party also agreed to the transfer of the Catalan train operator Rodalies, currently controlled from Madrid, and ‘correcting the fiscal deficit’. ALSO READ: PSOE preparing draft Catalan amnesty bill ahead of Sánchez investiture vote.

However, JxCat considered that the amnesty text signed with ERC was insufficient and demanded that the future law also include cases not directly related to the 2017 independence push, which they consider ‘lawfare’ – a term used by JxCat to describe the alleged use of the courts to persecute pro-independence activists.

The PSOE and JxCat therefore also agreed that the amnesty must cover all those who have been subjected to judicial processes — both before and after the 2017 referendum. A clause that is seen as a possible interference in the judiciary is the mention that commissions may investigate if there were cases of ‘lawfare’, meaning that the justice system was used for political purposes against secessionists that might require legislative modifications.

Spain’s tax inspectors, judges and lawyers took issue with proposals that Spain might hand back taxes to the wealthy industrial region and address ‘lawfare’.

In a statement, Spain’s four main judge associations, which represent left-wing and right-wing members, said that the deal threatened judicial independence and that Sánchez’s agreements with Puigdemont represent a ‘rupture in the separation of powers’ and an ‘unacceptable disrespect for the role of the legal system’.

Scale of opposition

The scale of opposition in Spain to the deal with the Catalan separatists has been very evident this week, with right-wing and far-right demonstrations outside the PSOE headquarters in central Madrid drawing their biggest numbers yet. Police said that the violence has been caused by a minority of extreme right-wing radicals. The demonstrations, held every evening for a week, saw 24 arrests on Thursday alone, according to police. ALSO READ: Protests against amnesty turn ugly as police use tear gas and smoke canisters.

The demonstrations have been called by the right-wing People’s Party (PP) and far-right Vox, who accuse Sánchez of betraying the country and handing power to a fugitive. The ‘Revuelta’ group, reportedly a youth movement supported by Vox, has also been behind the main protest in Madrid. Another major protest has been called for Sunday by the PP. 

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the PP, has promised a ‘parliamentary and legal’ fight against the amnesty bill and called for ‘civil disobedience’.

Appealing also for peaceful demonstrations, Feijóo said: ‘If, in order to be head of the government, [Sánchez] becomes an instrument in the hands of the independence movement, our nation has the right and the duty to make its voice heard calmly and without anger.’

Santiago Abascal, leader of Vox, has gone further in his rhetoric, calling for ‘resistance’ against the state. ‘We have the duty to resist a government and a tyrant that will be sworn in thanks to enemies of Spain,’ he said on Thursday during a demontration in front of PSOE headquarters in Madrid.

The amnesty plan is controversial even within the PSOE. Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after the failed secession to avoid prosecution, ‘is guilty and is not a victim,’ said Emiliano Garcia-Page, the socialist president of the Castilla-La Mancha region. ‘The judges just applied the law.’

Tough parliamentary term ahead

Sánchez, whose government has already granted pardons to several jailed leaders of the Catalan independence movement, has said the amnesty will be positive for Spain because it will calm waters inside Catalonia. He had previously repeatedly rejected amnesty as being ‘unconstitutional’. In order to govern, he now has to depend on the support of Puigdemont, whom he wrote off earlier this year as ‘history’.

Sánchez’s decision to pact with the pro-independence parties is already reflected in opinion polls. According to the latest survey by the CIS institute released on Friday, support for his PSOE party has already dropped 1.3% in a month, falling to 31.3%, while the PP has gained 1.7 points to 33.9%.

Beyond the current tensions and going forward into a new parliamentary term, a major issue for Sánchez will be the reliability of Puigdemont, who for years has strongly opposed Spain’s left-wing governments.

The entire pact between the PSOE and JxCat prompted further ire on the political right and left over the proposal of a role for an international mediator to oversee the rollout of the agreement.

Puigdemont confirmed on Thursday his support would be ‘conditional’, dependent on a ‘permanent negotiation that yields results and that those are accomplished throughout the legislative term’.

Without the support of JxCat – and with the fierce opposition of the PP that controls the senate – the PSOESumar coalition could struggle to pass legislation including budgets, risking a vote of no confidence against Sánchez, in power since 2018, or the forcing of another snap election. ALSO READ: Pedro Sánchez and Yolanda Díaz reach PSOE-Sumar coalition deal.

Many political commentators predict that a full four-year parliamentary term will be a tough challenge, and that Sánchez will have his work cut out just holding the deal together with the ERC and JxCat parties.

Others have said that the next legislature is ‘a huge risk for Sánchez’ – but that he has shown in the past that he likes a risk, and that he has often gambled politically and won.

The PSOE-JxCat agreement itself constitutes a concession by JxCat to work with Spain, in that the amnesty law must still be voted through parliament, and any referendum request would have to be line with the Spanish Constitution – but the opposition parties believe that Puigdemont or others will still try to unilaterally force another referendum.

Whilst the eventual amnesty law, if passed, might be limited due to opposition and legal challanges, Sánchez’s biggest challenge could be passing any other legislation without the support of his regional allies and the Catalan pro-independence camp.

Investiture debate and vote

On Friday Sánchez also secured support from the Basque Nationalist Party’s (EAJ-PNV) five MPs, ahead of the  investiture debate and vote to be held on Wednesday 15 and Thursday 16 November.

To be officially reinstated as PM after the inconclusive July general election, Sánchez needs to win support from at least 176 MPs within the 350-seat Spanish Congress in a key vote that must take place before 27 November. If he fails, Spain will automatically be forced to hold new elections, which would be in mid-January.

Sánchez already had the support of the 121 MPs in his own PSOE party, the 31 MPs of Sumar – and the six MPs of Basque party EH Bildu.

In addition to the backing of ERC and JxCat (both with seven seats each), Sánchez also has the support of the sole representatives from the Galician Nationalist party (BNG) and the Canary Islands Coalition. This will make a total of 179 MPs in the 350-seat chamber. ALSO READ: King Felipe instructs Pedro Sánchez to try and form a government.

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