Division is nothing new in Spain. In the last century, the country has experienced a civil war, endured a brutal fascist dictatorship under Francisco Franco and witnessed years of violence by Basque separatists amid deep regional tensions that drove Spaniards apart.
A consensus nevertheless emerged after Franco’s death in 1975 that a newly democratic Spain stood no chance of success if it continued to fight old wars. A 1977 amnesty law sought to wipe the slate clean by granting immunity to Franco’s henchmen and freeing political prisoners. This pacto del olvido (or pact of forgetting) kept Spain intact.
The old divisions remained, of course. But the country’s political leaders endeavoured to keep a lid on them in the name of making Spain work. Its post-Franco economy boomed, its art and architecture drew raves, and its mojo was restored. For a while, it seemed Spain had succeeded in conquering its demons.
Alas, the rise in recent years of new parties on the far-left and far-right has eroded the post-Franco consensus and led to political polarization. The country has witnessed four national elections in the past seven years, including a July 23 vote that produced no clear winner and has left Spain with only a caretaker government since then.
Acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez – whose Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, known as PSOE, finished in second place – now seeks to change that and consolidate his grip on power by concluding a pact with a Catalonian separatist party. The deal would see Junts per Catalunya’s seven members in Congress back PSOE in exchange for a law giving amnesty to the organizers of two illegal independence referendums in 2014 and 2017. That would give PSOE just enough votes in the 350-seat legislature to form a coalition government with the support of far-left Sumar and tiny regional and separatist parties.
Whether Mr. Sánchez’s deal with Junts, whose leader Carles Puigdemont is a fugitive from justice living in exile in Belgium, is worth the price – that’s another matter altogether. Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards have taken to the streets to protest the proposed amnesty law in the past two weeks, including nightly vigils outside PSOE’s Madrid headquarters. Police have stepped up security in advance of an investiture vote set for Thursday in Congress that would confirm Mr. Sánchez as prime minister, thanks to support from Junts.
Some judges have condemned the amnesty law as unconstitutional. A reference in the pact between PSOE and Junts to possible investigations into the persecution of Catalonian separatists for political purposes is seen as a threat to judicial independence.
Mr. Sánchez previously commuted the prison sentences of nine Catalonian leaders who were convicted for their roles in organizing the 2017 referendum, including the leader of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, a more moderate independence faction than Junts. But he insisted during the most recent election campaign that outright amnesty would be “unacceptable.” His postelection flip-flop has angered millions of Spaniards.
Still, Mr. Sánchez is a deft politician who has outfoxed his opponents time and again. After ousting the centre-right People’s Party in 2018 after two elections that produced hung parliaments, his PSOE has led a progressive coalition that has been a master at wedge politics, passing laws to crack down on gender-based violence and protect transgender rights. It has also dredged up leftover business from the Franco era. It adopted a law to move Franco’s body from a national military cemetery to a private graveyard, provoking outrage among supporters of the far-right Vox party. You might even argue that was its intended purpose.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal has denounced Mr. Sánchez’s bid to hold on to power as nothing short of a coup d’état. He was joined at a Monday protest by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who told Spanish journalists that “anybody who would violate your Constitution, potentially use physical violence to end democracy, is a tyrant, is a dictator.”
People’s Party leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo, whose centre-right party won 16 more seats than PSOE in the July vote, has not gone that far. But he has asked the European Union to sanction Mr. Sánchez’s government, citing a similar move by the EU in 2019 when Romania attempted to pass a law to amnesty politicians convicted of corruption.
Mr. Sánchez is betting the furor over the proposed law will soon die down and that, once cooler heads prevail, most Spaniards will ultimately agree with him that Catalonia’s political future should be decided at the ballot box and not by the courts.
He insists his deal with Junts is needed to prevent a People’s Party-Vox coalition from seizing power and taking Spain backward.
Yet, it is hard to see how Mr. Sánchez’s political opportunism will move Spain forward.