top of page
  • Marko Milikic

A land longing for unity

In yet another show of risky political manoeuvring, Spain’s PM Pedro Sanchez has closed a controversial deal with the Catalan centre-right separatist party Junts to secure a third term in office and avoid snap elections. The deal would secure amnesty for those involved in planning and carrying out the notorious 2017 Catalan independence referendum.

Marko Milikic

The Hot Boy Summer of 2023

Whichever political earthquake strikes, Pedro Sanchez somehow manages to survive. He has held the post of PM since 2018, grappling with one crisis after the other and holding on to thin majorities sustained by his leftist allies and minor regional parties. Following big defeats for his Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in the regional and municipal elections, which took place in May, he called for snap elections to be held on 23 July. It goes without saying how risky this move was - calling snap elections to be held soon after a full-on electoral disaster. Polls at the time, and in weeks following the call for elections, were very clear: The centre-right Popular Party (PP) was going to oust the socialists (although figures indicated that some sort of a coalition with far-right Vox would be needed).

However, time has shown that Sanchez had a plan; namely, he allowed the elections to be held shortly after the regional and municipal governments were formed. In a number of them, the PP needed to get Vox into government in order to rule. This allowed PSOE to run on a platform of “vote for us, prevent the far-right from taking over”, as PP indeed took a classic “Christian democratic” turn of giving power to a party openly celebrating the legacy of the Franco dictatorship and embracing extremist ideas, with open hostility to Spain’s autonomous regions, LGBTQ+ rights, with a refined touch of nativism.

Additionally, Sanchez’s decision on snap elections is considered to have managed to pressure the wide leftist spectrum from greens to communists to unite under the single electoral banner of Sumar, led by Spain’s popular deputy PM Yolanda Diaz. This joint list meant that the number of “wasted” ballots in Spain’s peculiar election system would be lower as there would not be too many separate leftist lists splitting the vote. For example, the high amount of wasted ballots due to a variety of separate lists is one of the reasons for the poor showing by the left in regional and municipal elections, which prevented PSOE from making governing coalitions - potential partners were simply left without seats because there were too many of them just below the threshold.

Fast forward to July 23rd, and in a turn of events that few expected, PP won the plurality of votes with 33,1%, with PSOE finishing close with an astounding 31,7% of the vote. Both the far right and the far left fell short of expectations. PP, albeit singing their praises for a victory, essentially won nothing since it was clear that their road to government would be paved with walls of obstacles. 

And so began the uncomfortable saga of government formation that would shake Spain for months to come.

You get a deal, you get a deal, everyone gets a deal!

August was a very hot month. It was particularly hot for Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, the leader of PP. Although he was tasked by the King for a first attempt at government formation, his dream of becoming PM burnt slowly but surely as he failed to get a majority in parliament. Although the entire campaign of PP was based on saving Spain from “Sanchismo” (referring to Sanchez’s legacy as PM, which allegedly emboldened separatists), Feijóo still reached out to Sanchismo in a bid for power. Finally, he even extended a hand of cooperation to Junts, a party he previously described as one destroying Spain’s constitution and unity. This is important to know in depicting the anatomy of a dangerous hypocrisy.

Then, it was Sanchez’s turn to try and form a government. After weeks of difficult negotiations, a deal was struck - actually, several deals. After an overarching agreement with Sumar, focused on extensive social and labour reforms, the Canary Coalition (CC), Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), Catalan Republican Left (ERC), and EH Bildu also got their deals with Sanchez and agreed to support his bid. From economic concessions through decentralisation to significant cultural recognition, Sanchez gave in to many requests. Finally, the most important of the deals came to the table. Amongst a series of concessions made to Junts, Sanchez also agreed to grant amnesty to Catalan separatists. He was voted in as PM for a third term in office, with 179 votes backing him in the 350-seat lower chamber of the Spanish Parliament.

What is the Amnesty Deal?

One logical question at this point is surely, “What the hell is that amnesty deal?”. The independence saga itself is already a very long story. In a nutshell, 2017 was marked by a failed, unconstitutional independence referendum organized by the then-government of Catalonia, composed of a coalition of independentist parties from across the ideological spectrum.

From one of those parties later arose Junts per Catalunya, a separatist party on one end, and a centre-right (elitist) enterprise on the other. This referendum was planned and instigated for several years and eventually carried out in 2017, resulting in a non-recognized victory for the separatists. This was followed by a violent crackdown by the Spanish police and a set of institutional interventions by Madrid.

Several individuals were charged with serious crimes; the leaders of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) stayed in Spain, were prosecuted, and went to jail (Oriol Junqueras, for instance), but they got pardoned by Sanchez a couple of years ago. However, the very important Carles Puidgemont of Junts fled abroad and is still residing in Belgium in a sort of exile, or at least a self-imposed one. In the meantime, he became an MEP. He was the face of the separatist movement and is now the (unlikely) face of Spain’s new government. 

The amnesty deal would see him and many others be granted amnesty and become free of criminal prosecution. For example, even those who were suspected of terrorist activities in relation to sedition might be allowed to walk free. Although the deal has been partly elaborated, it still needs to undergo a lengthy process of public debate, parliamentary adoption, and judicial control. Therefore, it is too early and irresponsible to give a final answer on what the deal actually is and how it will fit in the Spanish constitutional framework.

Save Spain! From Whom Exactly?

Massive protests have since erupted across Spain as PP and Vox seek to mobilise the population against the amnesty deal. Citing an attack on the constitution and Spanish unity, they claim that PM Sanchez has sold off Spain to separatists and that he ought to be stopped before it’s too late. Additionally, they were joined by the European Commission, albeit in a more diplomatic tone, in calls for the measure to be carefully reviewed. I tend to agree with certain points raised by the right-wing side of the Spanish political landscape, mostly in relation to the dangerous precedent that amnesty might set. On the other hand, behind their protest lay a deep, dangerous hypocrisy and refusal to see their own responsibility in every separatist movement that took place across Spain, from the Basque country to Catalonia.

They did not seem to care much about unity when they relentlessly attacked autonomous communities and spent decades stripping Spain’s rich (sub)national cultures of the freedom to express their identity. For these cultures, Spain has often been a battleground for cultural survival. Franco’s tyrannical one-man rule suppressed any and all cultural diversity and censured the national languages, violently fighting against opposition. After the evil dictator finally died, his spirit remained looming over Spain. Many forget the 1977 amnesty, which paved the way for impunity for many who committed heinous crimes during the course of Franco’s reign.

On the right-wing side of Spain, there are many who still invoke Franco and his policies. The austerity measures implemented by Spain in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis fueled the tensions even more. For many, this was a trigger for their dissatisfaction with Madrid to be relentlessly released. Additionally, many conveniently forget the overly violent crackdown on voters, citizens, and politicians that took place in Catalonia in 2017. As the PP is busy saving Spain from the socialist madman, their partners from Vox are flaunting interesting plans, such as stripping away the system of autonomous regions and significantly centralising Spain. It is a truly innovative way to fight separatism by centralization, cultural suppression, and massive policing pressure, thinking that this will actually help with Spanish unity. We’ve seen how that worked out.

The bottom line is: Spain is an incredibly diverse country that has for far too long strived to be a centralized fairy tale land of homogenous Spaniards. Since Pedro Sanchez took office in 2018, things have significantly changed. Compared to the “2017 Spain” of separatists in the peak of power, violence, and dissatisfaction of people from the more peculiar autonomous communities such as Catalonia, we see, on the other hand, diverse political coalitions, separatist parties losing voters and somewhat of a wider stability being achieved, as the separatist movements are at their lowest points in at least a decade. Spain did not die when languages other than Spanish finally got their official recognition in the parliament. Spain will not die with the wider cultural rights of its communities. Spain will die only when Madrid decisively fails to learn the lesson that oppression is NOT the path toward unity.

Be as it may, the amnesty deal is a dangerous precedent - but Spain can no longer go down the path it once took. If Catalonia is to be a part of Spain, it must finally reconcile with Madrid and be allowed to foster its truly unique and rich culture. The same goes for all other communities.

bottom of page