- Sanchez pardons Catalan separatists hoping to spur separatism.
- Oriol Junqueras reenters political scene, vying for Catalan referendum.
- Spanish right-wing parties object to the pardons and hope to benefit from possible failures this may bring.
Why is Sanchez in Camaraderie with Junqueras?
Answer: Sanchez looks to open talks with Catalan separatists and government.
In June 2021, Pedro Sanchez made the controversial decision to pardon nine Catalan separatists who were arrested for their involvement in the 2017 independence referendum. The independence vote made international headlines as images of police brutality flooded the news across the globe. Widely seen as an ‘illegal referendum’, the vote led to the arrests and self-exiles of the major players involved.
The 12 Catalan leaders who set up the vote were charged with sedition among other crimes. One of the heaviest sentences was given to Oriol Junqueras, the former Vice President of the Catalan region and current President of the political party Esquerra (Republican Left of Catalonia). This is one of the most influential pro-independence parties in the region, alongside Junts Per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia).
Junqueras’ imprisonment, along with the eight other political figures, was largely seen as a political move by the previous conservative government to kill the hopes of a future Catalan independent state. Under the current government of Pedro Sanchez’s PSOE (Socialist Workers’ Party of Spain), the previously used method of ‘ignoring the Catalan problem’ is no longer deemed democratic or efficient to end the internal political ordeal.
For Sanchez, the only solution to move the country forward is through a dialogue between the Catalan separatists and the Spanish government. Therefore, to spark the conversation between Barcelona and Madrid, Sanchez’s government pardoned the group of nine Catalan political figures. The ‘partial’ pardons for the nine separatists go as far as releasing the members from jail – though they are not allowed to run for public office.
This move was met with much backlash from his opponents in Parliament, notably PP (Popular Party), Vox, and Cs (Citizens), whose supporters protested in Madrid on June 13 with around 25,000 expressing their grievances regarding Sanchez’s decision. Defending the pardons, Sanchez highlighted its necessity to promote a “spirit of dialogue and concord” between Catalonia and Madrid.
Historically, Sanchez and PSOE have been accused of being ‘too soft’ on the Catalan separatists as they have been more open to dialogue with the Catalan government as opposed to their right-wing counterparts. For example, the Spanish Foreign Ministry under Sanchez allowed for the reopening of three Catalan foreign delegations in Tunisia, Mexico, and Argentina, which can be seen as a decentralization of power from the Spanish government.
Similarly, in early 2020, Sanchez relied on Junqueras’ Esquerra to abstain from his investiture vote so that the left-wing now-ruling coalition between Podemos (We can) and PSOE would take over with their parliamentary mandate. Therefore, Sanchez understands that outcasting the Catalan separatist parties will only worsen the internal conflict, and that Junqueras’ and other regional parties are needed for his own political survival.
What does Sanchez want?
Answer: Sanchez wants the support of Catalan parties and drawing a line on the independence referendum.
For Sanchez, one of the main motivations to make peace with the Catalans is to consolidate support from the two ruling parties and possibly from other separatist parties across Spain. As Sanchez has previously relied on Esquerra’s support (or abstention) for his government’s investiture vote, making amends with Catalan voters could give him the edge in future parliamentary votes.
Nonetheless, it is possible that the reconciliation attempts are not enough for the Catalan separatists, as their leaders have said the pardons do not guarantee Esquerra or Junt‘s loyalty for Sanchez or his 2022 budget. Currently, the two largest Catalan pro-independence parties rule in Catalonia, which incentivizes Sanchez to come to the table with Pere Aragonès, President of Catalonia and National Coordinator of Esquerra, and somehow convince the Catalans to slowly drift away from their statehood desires.
In the end, Sanchez wants to systematically confront the Catalan “political crisis” – as he calls it – to ensure that Spain does not see a successful Catalan secession. Sanchez is trying to complete this objective by opening up to Aragonès to jump-start dialogue between the Catalan regional and national government. The Prime Minister knows that it will be difficult to convince the Catalans to abandon their end goal of an independent state, but actually warns them that a Catalan state is “unachievable outside [of] the law”.
Sanchez also looks to reassure PSOE supporters and moderates who do not support Catalan talks by posing a hardline stance against a potential referendum, saying, “there will be no referendum on self-determination. Ever”. Nonetheless, he is aware that taking too hard a stance against Catalan separatists would likely compromise the support of separatist parties in a parliamentary makeup where every vote matters. It seems that Sanchez is playing a two-part balancing act to satisfy Catalan separatists and his own supporters.
What does Junqueras want?
Answer: Plain and simple – Catalan independence referendum.
For Junqueras and Esquerra, their ultimate goal is self-determination for a Catalan state. They understand that the path towards Catalan statehood is achievable through “the peaceful and democratic exercise of the right of self-determination”, which highlights that Junqueras is aiming for increased cooperation with Madrid. Esquerra’s methods differ from ex-Catalan President and current political exile – Carles Puigdemont – and his Junts per Catalunya party, who do not find it necessary to work alongside Madrid, but instead take a “[peacefully] confrontational” approach; a unilateral referendum.
As the President of Esquerra, Junqueras will have much negotiating power when it comes to how Aragonès deals alongside Pedro Sanchez – even though he is unable to hold public office despite his pardon. He will likely push Aragonès to stay in close relations with the national government while negotiating a deal over the future of Catalan independence. Nonetheless, if Junqueras sees that it becomes impossible to negotiate with the national government, he doesn’t rule out the option of a unilateral independence referendum.
What is Sanchez doing?
Answer: Sanchez is pardoning Catalan political prisoners, meeting with Aragonès, and reshuffling his government.
The biggest step Sanchez has taken in the dispute between the Catalan separatists and the national government was releasing the nine Catalan separatists from prison. The pardons were meant to reconcile with the current Catalan government and bolster his support among Catalan pro-independence parties, so that he could open a door for bilateral commitment regarding the Catalan political crisis.
After the pardons, Sanchez opened talks with the President of Catalonia, Pere Aragonès, and met with him in late June to discuss the future of negotiations between Madrid and Barcelona. The discussion between the leaders highlighted two potential fallout points between the national and regional governments; self-determination and amnesty for those arrested. Though Sanchez is adamant about there being no possibility of a second Catalan referendum, he also previously promised that the government would not make any pardons for Catalan prisoners.
This change of mind has certainly brought differing reactions in the Spanish political scene. For example, the spokesperson of Esquerra, Gabriel Rufian, said “Mr. Sanchez, you say there will be no referendum. You also said that there would be no pardons. Give us time”. As for the Spanish right-wing parties, it is clear that such a move severely upset them.
Since Sanchez needs to balance between his right and left-wing counterparts, his administration announced a cabinet reshuffle to allegedly “consolidate the economic recovery and job creation”. This move changed 12/17 of PSOE’s positions, while the seats held by Podemos remained untouched. The COVID-19 pandemic also puts Sanchez in a volatile position, as the rising number of cases may force him to implement restrictions once again, which could hurt the economy and politically weaken PSOE. The pardons, among other things, are one of the many moves Sanchez has made to redeem himself from the weakening political support in tense times of governance.
What does it mean for you?
Answer: Other parties may benefit from these political tensions.
Currently, Spanish society is torn after Sanchez’s decision. Around 60% of the general Spanish population doesn’t support the pardons, but 70% in Catalonia does. It clearly remains a divisive political topic. As stated previously, on June 13 the major Spanish right-wing parties, Vox, PP, and Cs, took to the streets to voice their outrage over the decision taken by Sanchez and in the hopes of reversing it. Sanchez’s decision also comes during a time in which PSOE trails PP in the polls for the first time since 2018, opening the possibility of a right-wing government in the future.
In short, the future of the political crisis depends entirely on the negotiations between the Catalan and national governments. In the case that somehow the Catalan government shifts away from the hopes of an independence referendum, Sanchez will have taken a ‘win’ in his book. If not, it is likely to prove a politically disastrous decision for Sanchez, which right-wing coalitions will likely take advantage of by seeking for a no-confidence vote or waiting until the public opinion plays its card in the 2023 elections.
For Catalonia, the pardons open a door for Catalan separatists to seek a new independence strategy at a different foothold with the left-leaning Spanish government. It is clear that although Junqueras and Esquerra are more willing to work towards a multilateral agreement for Catalonia’s future, their end goal is also to see Catalonia independent from Spain. But if talks between Barcelona and Madrid end without a clear path, it is entirely possible that a second independence referendum could become a reality through a unilateral path. If this is the case, the nine Catalan prisoners could reenter legal trouble, which could worsen the political crisis and widen the rift between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.