Spain’s Sánchez Makes the Ultimate Gamble

An amnesty deal with Catalan separatists reveals a path back to power for the interim prime minister—but at a massive price.

By , a freelance journalist from Spain.
A red-and-yellow Spanish flag is waved from a balcony looking down at a public square in Madrid where hundreds of people are gathered during a demonstration, holdings signs and waving flags. At the center of the square is a platform holding an artificial Christmas tree that has been halfway constructed.
A red-and-yellow Spanish flag is waved from a balcony looking down at a public square in Madrid where hundreds of people are gathered during a demonstration, holdings signs and waving flags. At the center of the square is a platform holding an artificial Christmas tree that has been halfway constructed.
A demonstrator holds a Spanish flag from a balcony during a protest called by right-wing opposition against an amnesty bill for people involved with Catalonia's failed 2017 independence bid in Madrid on Nov. 12. Oscar del Pozo/AFP via Getty Images

Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s interim and perhaps soon-to-be (again) prime minister, is no stranger to taking risks. But his latest gamble has triggered a massive backlash from broad swaths of Spanish society, including in his own party, that threatens to tear the country apart.

Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s interim and perhaps soon-to-be (again) prime minister, is no stranger to taking risks. But his latest gamble has triggered a massive backlash from broad swaths of Spanish society, including in his own party, that threatens to tear the country apart.

To break a monthslong deadlock after an inconclusive general election in July, Sánchez has struck a controversial political agreement with Catalan separatist parties to grant them amnesty for all charges related to the failed 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia, the northeastern part of Spain. Sánchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) came a close second in the elections to the mainstream conservative Popular Party, though neither won close to a majority.

Thanks to his horse-trading, Sanchez now has the necessary votes to renew a coalition government with support of the far left and formerly standoffish Catalan regional parties. He could regain the premiership this week if legal challenges don’t stop the effort.

But it comes with a huge price tag. The concessions to the separatists, chief among them the amnesty bill, have triggered outrage on the right, discomfort among some PSOE leaders, a nearly unanimous rejection from judicial bodies and associations, and street protests all across Spain. Thousands of citizens protested peacefully on Nov. 12, convened by the Popular Party and the far-right Vox. For days now, hundreds of citizens have gathered in front of the PSOE’s headquarters in Madrid, including a minority of far-right extremists who have violently clashed with the police; even U.S. political commentator Tucker Carlson showed up.

Loudspeaker trucks trundled through Madrid on Monday, the day after the big protest, proclaiming “Sánchez, Traitor!” and “We will stop the coup.” Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, decried Sanchez’s amnesty on Tuesday as “backdoor regime change” and filed a legal challenge with the Spanish Supreme Court.

Coalition governments are often the norm in Spain’s parliamentary system, and the handful of parties that Sanchez cobbled together to support his investiture again as prime minister together won more votes than many other previous governments did in recent decades. But what has set off the alarm bells is the way that Sanchez went about it, embracing—and preemptively pardoning—parties whose reason for being is to break up the country.

“Those who wanted to thwart a right-wing government are actually handing over control to the pro-independence right,” said Emiliano Garcia-Page, the head of the PSOE in the region just south of Madrid.

This all began with Catalonia’s most recent bid to break away from Madrid. Catalan demands for sovereignty date back centuries, alternating between periods in which it sought more power as a region within Spain and others in which it pushed to break away from Spain. In 2017, in the wake of Spain’s economic crisis, a separatist Catalan government organized a referendum that Spain’s judiciary deemed unconstitutional, followed by a failed and largely symbolic unilateral declaration of independence.

In 2019, a court ruling sentenced seven Catalan politicians and two activists to prison for the events in 2017, sparking a wave of mass protests in Catalonia. In a first attempt to ease tensions, Sánchez issued pardons that released them from their remaining jail time. Other organizers of the 2017 referendum fled Spain and have since avoided extradition, including Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan regional president who masterminded the referendum.

And then came the political impasse this summer. The Popular Party got slightly more votes, but even with the backing of Vox, it could not form a majority in parliament. Sanchez’s Socialists and their far-left allies could—as long as the Catalan regional parties were brought onside. So Sanchez paid the price to do so, offering a blanket amnesty in what Spanish courts and judges had already ruled was an illegal maneuver.

In exchange, Junts per Catalunya and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the pro-independence parties, have each agreed to pursue their goals of independence in agreement with Spain’s government and under the constitutional system. This is a critical concession, especially for Junts, a party that has until now defended unilateral action to break away from Spain.

Their return to pursuing their goals within the Spanish system raises hopes that agreements on devolution, which has been stalled while Catalan nationalists sought independence, could be reached. “It’s a political term for institutional politics and to explore a path of agreements,” said Marc Sanjaume, a professor of political science at Pompeu Fabra University.

The PSOE negotiator behind the deal, Santos Cerdán, said that it constitutes “a historic opportunity to resolve a conflict that should only be resolved through politics,” adding that it’s time to provide a “horizon” for Catalans and the rest of Spaniards “in which past difficulties are not an obstacle.”

Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, the Popular Party chief, said during the Nov. 12 rally that it was “one person’s greed,” referring to Sánchez, that brought them to protest. “We Spaniards do not accept that the premiership has become a sales transaction.” Feijóo and his party are calling for new elections.

Political problems aside—and they won’t stay aside—there are also a lot of legal issues with the amnesty agreement. The deal between Sánchez and Puigdemont’s party has raised almost unanimous criticism from judicial bodies and associations, specifically regarding one proposal to create parliamentary inquiries to examine so-called lawfare, or the use of the judiciary to target political opponents. Judges and Spanish lawyers, however, have seen this as the legislative meddling with the judiciary. So have international legal experts.

The meddling “will severely erode the rule of law in Spain,” said the president of the International Bar Association, a Spaniard, in a recent statement.

Many Spaniards also find it hard to see the amnesty bill as a genuine attempt to act “in the public interest,” as the text says, when it’s the result of political horse-trading with those whom the amnesty will benefit. The fact that an amnesty related to the Catalan separatist movement has largely been dismissed as unconstitutional until now, including by plenty of PSOE leaders, has left many agape.

Once approved, the law will surely undergo examination by the Constitutional Court. “An amnesty is an act of justice,” said Jesús María de Miguel, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Cantabria, who believes that this amnesty is at odds with Spain’s legal system. “Those who benefit are part of a transition from one regime to another. The new regime says that the former regime enforced the law unfairly.”

It implies that there has been wrongdoing by the state, De Miguel added, and thus the bill could erode Spain’s rule of law: “If you say ‘let’s forget something because it is an act of unfairness from the state,’ your rule of law collapses under its own weight.”

The legal thicket will be ugly, and it will take time to play out. The political minefield, however, is right in front of Sanchez. Junts only guarantees political stability insofar as there is, in Puigdemont’s words, “fulfillment” of the agreements reached as part of negotiations between the PSOE and Junts that will occur throughout the parliamentary term. Their purpose is to achieve “a set of agreements that contribute to resolving the conflict over the political future of Catalonia.” Junts will keep defending the idea of holding a new independence referendum with Spain’s consent, and the PSOE will propose devolving more powers to the region.

Another referendum might be a bridge too far, but progress on further devolution—the kind of trick that has kept Scottish, Welsh, Basque, and Catalan regional political forces at bay—could be feasible, said Sanjaume, who has advised the Catalan government with proposals to achieve statehood. That’s especially true for tax revenues, which have not been touched in years, he said.

Spain’s had an identity crisis since at least the 15th century, and it’s still dealing with the fault lines and fissures. Sanchez’s latest gambit might buy time for a new government and some further changes to Spain’s already centrifugal territorial system.

But even for a man who’s always landed on his feet—and Sanchez is a gato, or cat, a slang term for a Madrid native—this looks like his ultimate gamble.

Albert Guasch Rafael is a freelance journalist from Spain who writes about global and European affairs. He is also a communications coordinator at the nongovernmental organization Democracy Reporting International. Twitter: @albertguaschr

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