Spain’s Supreme Court has put Pedro Sánchez between a rock and a hard place.
Pedro Sánchez has not had an easy run as president of the government of Spain. Sánchez, and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), came to power in June 2018 because of a corruption scandal within the former leadership of the long-term rival People’s Party (PP). Since then, Sánchez has had to deal with Covid-19, the rise of right-wing nationalist movements such as Vox and the elephant in the room—Catalan independence.
In October 2017 the Catalan government of nationalist parties called a referendum on independence, which was overwhelmingly won amid opposition abstention and was followed by a declaration of independence by the parliamentary majority. The then PP premier, Mariano Rajoy, invoked article 155 of the Spanish constitution, with the support of the Senate, and dissolved the government and parliament in Barcelona. The Constitutional Court suspended the declaration of independence and, while some members of the Catalan government fled to Belgium, at the behest of Spain’s National Court other ministers were detained.
Two and a half years on, this week the country’s Supreme Court produced a report outlining that it was in Sánchez’s hands whether or not to pardon the political prisoners. Passing the baton in this way creates a dilemma for the PSOE leader. On one hand, at a press conference in Brussels Sánchez expressed his desire to promote peace and dialogue—not ‘vengeance’—to overcome the Catalan situation. But, on the other, pardoning the separatists would represent a bold, and risky, political statement.
Pablo Casado, current leader of the centre-right PP, has said he would take any such pardon to the courts. Many Spaniards outside of Catalonia saw the declaration of independence as a declaration of war against Spain. The movement has split the country, socially and politically, fuelling partisan conflict and even attracting the attention of the European Court of Human Rights. According to a survey by Henneo, 67 per cent of Spanish citizens are against the pardoning of the political prisoners.
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The Supreme Court, despite changing its tone to a lighter one from its 2019 sentencing of the Catalan figures, warned Sánchez against a pardon. The court said it would be ‘unacceptable’ to pardon the nine jailed prisoners, as they had not shows any sign of regret and it would go against the Spanish constitution.
Spain’s Constitutional Court has been criticised by many Catalans for being too heavily conservative—including for its ‘trimming’ in 2010 of more than half of the articles in the 2006 Catalan Autonomy Statute, approved during the earlier socialist government of José Luis Zapatero. This enraged Catalans and fuelled the independence movement.
Last week, Pere Aragonès, leader of the Republican Left of Catalonia Party (ERC), was appointed president of the Generalitat (Catalan government). The party’s advocacy of Catalan independence dates back to the fall of the former dictator Primo de Rivera in 1930. With its leader, Oriol Junqueras, one of those behind bars for the 2017 referendum, the ERC’s burning desire for independence is not expected to subside.
After the first meeting of his government, Aragonès put pressure on Sánchez to take action. He said his administration would not be against the forgiveness of the sentences (a pardon) but would prioritise their cancellation (amnesty) to resolve the conflict. On Monday evening, Aragonès took an oath to work towards amnesty for the political prisoners and to make ‘self-determination inevitable’. ERC is part of a coalition with the Together for Catalonia (Junts) party, whose president, Carles Puigdemont, is still in exile in Belgium over charges related to the referendum and his failure to appear in the High Court.
On Wednesday, Sánchez ruled out amnesty as a viable option for the political prisoners, saying it would be unconstitutional. The courts have also excluded a full pardon, meaning Sánchez could only grant a partial one.
But even that prospect seems to have accelerated the onset of talks between Barcelona and Madrid, with both leaders acknowledging the necessity for deliberation. Aragonès requested the dialogue to start this week—a big step towards co-operation considering the two sides have failed to enter such discussions constructively since the 2019 sentences. The ERC leader has however said that dialogue will only be possible if a future, official referendum on Catalan independence is on the agenda.
Though facing hostile opposition, Sánchez and the PSOE have suggested they are in favour of granting clemency for the Catalan prisoners. Sánchez wants to reunify a divided Spain, in an era of conflict and hardship, and contends that the Catalan situation must be peacefully overcome.
But what happens next will surely be the beginning of another complex and difficult Spanish political dilemma. Not only will any decision to pardon return to the courts, but there is an undeniable mist of ambiguity regarding the conditions for it or the precedents created for a potential future referendum.
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Pedro Sánchez is between a rock and a hard place, again.
Tom Canetti has a masters in political philosophy from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. A freelance journalist, he focuses on corruption and macroeconomics in Spain.