A Catalan pro-independence protestor wearing an Estelada, or Catalan independence mask, stands in front of police, not seen, during a protest in Barcelona, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.

In Spain, the price for power? Forgiving separatists.

Spain’s socialist party seems ready to form a coalition government after inconclusive elections in July. But to do so, they’ve had to promise to grant amnesty to fugitive Catalan separatists for their attempt to break away from Spain in 2017. The Catalan separatists' party has become kingmaker, but folks on the right say the deal threatens Spain’s democracy.

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In Spain, the price for political power is proving high — for everyone, that is, except Catalan separatists. 

Spain’s been in political limbo since elections last July when no party won an outright majority. The ruling Spanish Socialist Workers' Party are now courting Catalan independence parties to form a coalition. 

The problem, for current Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, is what the Catalans want in exchange: Amnesty for their failed breakaway attempt from Spain and a second crack at independence. 

Much to Sánchez’s chagrin, Catalan separatists, led by self-exiled leader Carles Puigdemont, are a problem that just won’t go away.

“Our independence referendum was not a crime,” Puigdemont told reporters recently in Brussels. “Nor were our mass protests against government repression.”

He was referring to the unconstitutional vote he led six years ago. 

Catalonia’s independence referendum came after years of stalled talks between the region and Madrid over taxes, language rights and more. 

The vote itself was declared illegal by Spain’s highest court.

Spanish police cracked down on voters, dragging them from polling stations and beating many. 

A man in a crowd seen throwing a canister

A Catalan pro-independence protestor throws a stone during clashes with police in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. Thousands of ordinary citizens got into legal trouble for their parts in Catalonia’s illegal independence bid that brought Spain to the brink of rupture six years ago. Now they are hoping to be saved. Spain’s acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, is negotiating with Catalan separatist parties on the possibility of issuing a sweeping amnesty for the separatists in exchange for their helping him form a new national government in Madrid. 


Bernat Armangue/AP/File Photo

Puigdemont fled in the night over the Pyrenees.

Up until just a few weeks ago, his demeanor was that of a guy on the lamb, worried about extradition. These days, he’s holding forth like a kingmaker. With demands — including amnesty from prosecution. 

This was, until recently, a thing of dreams.

“What Puigdemont wants is amnesty,” Prime Minister Sánchez said on TV less than a year ago. “This government isn’t going to accept that idea. It’s not even allowed under the Spanish constitution.”

But now, Sánchez is singing a different tune.

In the name of Spain, he told fellow socialists last week, and to foster peaceful coexistence, “I support amnesty in Catalonia for those implicated during the independence movement.”

Sánchez’s aboutface puts him way out on a political wire. 

This is not lost on the guy who actually got more votes in July than Sánchez, conservative Popular Party leader Alberto Feijóo. 

The problem for Feijóo was that no one wanted to team up except for the far-right Vox Party. But it wasn’t enough to reach 50% of the vote needed.

But now Feijóo smells political blood. He’s been leading giant crowds against amnesty for the separatists. Rallying behind national unity, the flag. 

large crowd marching with flag of Spain

Demonstrators march during a protest organized by Sociedad Civil Catalana in Barcelona Spain, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. Thousands protest against the possibility of Spain's left-wing government proposing an amnesty for hundreds of people in legal trouble for involvement in Catalonia's separatist movement


Emilio Morenatti/AP

“Those who broke the law must be judged,” Feijóo told a crowd at an outdoor rally last week in the southern city of Malaga. “And those of us who are not delinquents do not have to ask forgiveness of criminals. That is undemocratic.”

The most recent polls suggest Feijóo’s strategy is working. 

As the socialists and the separatists inch closer to a deal, the conservative leader’s numbers are rising. And the worst, for Sánchez, might be yet to come. 

Exiled Catalan leader Puigdemont summed it up himself.

“Either the country holds elections all over again…,” he said in Brussels, “...or Sánchez’s government makes a pact with us, the same party that will never renounce our legal and legitimate right to secede from Spain.”

To wit, if Puigdemont does sign along Sánchez’s dotted line, sooner or later, he will demand that Sánchez cross a red one of his own: to negotiate a legal vote on Catalan independence. 

But that would require amending the Constitution – not to mention likely sparking even larger national protests.  

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