Pedro Sánchez will remain at the head of Spain, Spanish MPs decided on Thursday. The controversial amnesty he promised to Catalan separatist politicians and activists ensured his next mandate.
The vote of confidence capped a turbulent few months that followed the July election. Sánchez’s Socialists were overtaken in them by the center-right People’s Party. However, their leader Alberto Núñez Feijó failed to win the trust of the deputies even for the second time, so Sánchez got the chance.
As Martin Mejstřík, an expert on Spain, predicted in an earlier interview, the post-election negotiations were mainly about siding with the Catalan right-wing separatists. That’s what Sánchez finally succeeded in more than a month of effort.
The acting prime minister promised to grant amnesty to activists who participated in the Catalan independence referendum, thereby securing the support of two Catalan separatist groups – the left-wing ERC and the conservative Junts – in the vote. Without them, he would not have won a majority in parliament.
However, the amnesty bill presented by the Socialist Party this week has sparked a number of disapproving reactions in Spain, despite Sánchez presenting it as a step that will contribute to “dialogue, understanding and forgiveness”.
Who is Pedro Sánchez?
- Pedro Sánchez was born in 1972 into a wealthy family in the suburbs of Madrid, his father was a businessman. He joined the Socialist Party in 1993, i.e. at the age of 21. Two years later, he studied economics and business at the Complutense University in Madrid.
- He started with politics at the regional level, wrote the Spanish branch of the Vanity Fair website. He was a councilor in Madrid from 2004 to 2009, then took his first seat in parliament when he replaced a colleague who retired.
- After the unsuccessful elections in 2011, he also worked as an economic consultant and lectured at universities. He returned to parliament as an ordinary deputy in January 2013, a year and a half later he became the head of the PSOE.
- The peak of his political career came in the middle of 2018, when after more than six years of ruling by the People’s Party, a representative of the PSOE – i.e. Sánchez – took the prime minister’s chair again.
The Spanish opposition called the amnesty for Catalan separatists unconstitutional and accused Sánchez of hypocrisy and of putting his own stay in government ahead of national interests.
“You are the problem… you and your inability to keep your word, your lack of moral inhibitions, your pathological ambition,” his key rival Feijóo accused Sánchez. He even called on the European Union to ensure the protection of the rule of law in Spain and to adopt similar measures as in the case of Hungary, Poland or Romania, the Euractiv server reported.
Sánchez even earned the nickname “Viktor Orbán of the South” from the vice-chairman of the European People’s Party, which, together with the Spanish people, seeks to have the actions of the Spanish prime minister resolved in Brussels.
Public opinion polls show that even the majority of Spanish society opposes amnesty. Disagreement therefore spilled over into the streets there. Several thousand protesters gathered outside the headquarters of Sánchez’s party on Wednesday, waving Spanish flags and chanting slogans such as “No coup!”. Another demonstration is reported for Saturday.
“The opposition will protest, call demonstrations, try to portray the situation as apocalyptic, in the sense that the disintegration of Spain as we know it has begun. It will mobilize citizens and undermine the government so that it falls apart as soon as possible,” Mejstřík estimates future developments.
“He will try to point out that Sánchez essentially sold Spanish sovereignty in order to stay in government,” he adds.
Pedro Sánchez was given the mandate to form a government. In order to succeed, he must negotiate with the Catalan separatists, who demand a questionable return for their support. If anyone is to succeed, it is Sánchez, claims an expert on Spain.
It will be up to Sánchez, whom Mejstrík described as “a very pragmatic politician who can come to an agreement with basically everyone”, to calm the heated emotions that now prevail in Spain.
Sánchez said in a speech on Wednesday that amnesty is in the interest of all Spaniards, as it will lead to better coexistence in the country. He added that, in his opinion, it was not an attack on the constitution, but rather “a demonstration of its strength”. He showed his willingness to negotiate with Catalonia two years ago, when he pardoned nine Catalan separatist leaders.
“He will try to appear as the one who calmed down the situation, solved the Catalan problem by starting a constructive dialogue with those parties and brought them to power,” Mejstrík predicts Sánchez’s next steps.
The amnesty is meant to end the prosecution of several hundred separatist politicians and activists who participated in the 2014 and 2017 Catalan independence plebiscites, both of which were previously banned by the Constitutional Court.
The declaration of amnesty should also concern the prominent former Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont from the Junts party, who has been living in exile in Belgium since the failed attempt to declare Catalan independence. Now he could return to Spain again.
Spanish political scientist Pablo Simón, contacted by the Financial Times, estimated that the Junts “will be very interested in talking a lot about the territorial issue”, ie the status of Catalonia and the possible announcement of another referendum on independence. “And the Socialist Party will be very interested in talking about anything else,” he adds.