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MADRID — For the first time in nearly half a century, a Spanish government is considering the introduction of a sweeping, politically motivated amnesty.
If approved, it could ensure the formation of a new left-wing government. Critics warn it would open the door to political and territorial instability and could undermine the country’s democratic foundations.
The amnesty is the main condition proposed by the pro-independence Junts party in exchange for its support for the acting prime minister, Socialist Pedro Sánchez, in a parliamentary investiture vote.
Junts, whose most visible figure is the self-exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, is calling for a legislative measure that would annul pending legal action and sanctions against pro-independence leaders over their involvement in a failed bid to secede in 2017.
The Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and its leftist allies, Sumar, are studying the feasibility of such legislation and have begun tentative talks on the matter.
The leader of the opposition Popular Party (PP), Alberto Núñez Feijóo — who got the most votes in the July election — faces what appears to be a doomed investiture vote in late September. He simply doesn’t have the numbers in parliament to form a government. After that, Sánchez will be given a chance to form a coalition. But without Junts’ support, Sánchez’s attempted investiture, expected in November, would almost certainly fail as well, leading to a repeat of the general election.
“Spain has a complex dilemma to solve,” Puigdemont said as he laid out his terms in Belgium, where he has been based since fleeing Spain to avoid the reach of the judiciary six years ago.
“Either they repeat the election, or they reach a deal with a party … which has not rejected and will not reject the unilateral route [to independence] as a legitimate way of implementing its rights.”
The last such amnesty in Spain was in 1977, as the country was making the transition from dictatorship to democracy. The amnesty protected both opponents and members of the regime from prosecution.
The details of a possible new amnesty are still unclear, although the Catalan organization Òmnium Cultural says it should cover more than 1,400 nationalists who have either been convicted or sanctioned, or who are still facing legal proceedings. Puigdemont and others who fled Spain in 2017 would be obvious beneficiaries.
“We face the coming legislature within the limits of dialogue, the constitution and the objective of social peace,” government spokeswoman Isabel Rodríguez said when addressing the issue of negotiations with Junts over Sánchez’s investiture.
However, there is not a clear consensus on where exactly the constitutional limits lie regarding an amnesty, given that the constitution, drawn up in 1978, does not address the issue.
“It is true that the constitution does not prohibit an amnesty, but that does not necessarily mean that it allows it either,” said Mercedes García Arán, an expert in criminal law at Barcelona’s Autonomous University. She added that “everything depends on the interpretation of [the constitution’s] principles.”
In 2021, parliamentary jurists wrote a report that declared the measure unconstitutional, in response to a proposal by Catalan nationalist parties.
The call for an amnesty is already facing fierce political backlash. Sánchez’s opponents are highlighting the fact that he had previously ruled out such a measure and that he is only considering it now in order to ensure his own political survival.
The PP’s Feijóo has started a campaign aimed at encouraging local governments across Spain to approve motions condemning the proposal, which, he said, “breaks our constitutional values.” The PP is also organizing a demonstration against the amnesty in Madrid later this month.
Sánchez has faced similar accusations before, such as when his government pardoned nine jailed independence leaders in 2021, or more recently when it changed the criminal code in a move that benefitted Catalan politicians still facing charges of sedition and misuse of public funds.
Political scientist Pablo Simón, of Carlos III University, said that an amnesty is “a much bigger undertaking” than the previous concessions made to Catalan nationalists and carries with it some complex baggage.
“An amnesty implies an implicit acknowledgment that we all made mistakes — that the independence movement got it wrong [in 2017] and so did the Spanish state,” he said. “From a political point of view, that is very difficult to accept [for many unionists].”
One of the many questions raised is whether an amnesty law would apply to the 45 officers who are under investigation for their part in the police violence used against Catalans who voted in the chaotic referendum that was at the center of the independence bid six years ago.
Simón believes that if there is enough time to hammer out a deal, which is not a given, a hybrid bill could emerge from the talks that avoids being an “amnesty” in the pure sense and is therefore marginally less contentious.
While resistance to any such concession is to be expected from the stridently unionist right, Sánchez is also facing dissidence from within his own party. Former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González, a regular critic, has spoken out against the proposal. But so too have other traditionally less hostile figures within the PSOE, such as Joaquín Almunia, a former European commissioner and government minister, who suggested that Junts “should carry out some serious criticism of its own behavior in 2017” before an amnesty is considered.
The idea of Puigdemont, who has spent the last six years repeating the message that Spain is an undemocratic state and comparable to totalitarian regimes of the last century, imposing his demands on the country’s institutions is particularly concerning for many.
Juan Luis Cebrián, a former editor of the center-left El País newspaper, warned in its pages that an amnesty for Catalan nationalists could “mark the beginning of the end of our democracy.”
Toni Comín, a Puigdemont ally who is already leading Junts’ negotiations on a possible amnesty with Sumar, which would be the junior partner in a new Sánchez government, said the PSOE is being more coy.
“It’s normal that the PSOE should want to delay the talks as long as possible, because it’s a negotiation for which it is going to pay a political price,” he told POLITICO from Brussels, where he has been living to avoid prosecution by Spain.
He added that Junts has laid out “some very viable conditions” for negotiations because it has left talks on a possible independence referendum — its ultimate objective — for after the investiture vote.
Junts believes that opinion polls on a potential repeat election, which would likely be held in January, could end up forcing a deal.
“If Sánchez sees that he would lose and that Feijóo is on course to win a majority, there won’t be elections,” said Comín. “He will give ground.”
In the meantime, the prime minister will be weighing up both the very stiff logistical challenges of drawing up an amnesty in such a short space of time and the potential political cost of doing so.