On Tuesday 15 June, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced plans to pardon nine jailed leaders of Catalonia’s unsuccessful 2017 independence bid. He alluded to how pardoning them was in public interest, since it symbolized moving from past confrontational viewpoints by the government against the Catalan prisoners. According to The New York Times, in the 2017 separatist movement, Spain’s courts declared the pardon vote illegal and the government launched a crackdown. They confiscated ballots as well as sent in rioters to attack several who attempted to vote.
As Sanchez proclaimed his wish for “a spirit of dialogue and concord,” separatist protestors in Barcelona demanded for a new referendum on independence. Not to mention, as reported by NBC, opposition parties in Madrid threatened Sanchez’s party that they would object to the pardons in court.
At an event in the Catalan capital attended by members of Catalan civil society while boycotted by the Catalan pro-independence government, Sanchez said “[T]o reach an agreement, someone must make the first step,” and that the Spanish government will do it. Contradictory to his party’s stance, opinion polls reveal that nearly half of Catalans want independence from Spain. According to El País, the latest survey from the regional government’s official CEO research center reveals that almost 42 percent of Catalan citizens favor a Catalonia independent of Spain.
With that being said, Sanchez’s move to pardon the Catalan leaders could be highly unpopular among Spaniards. NBC reports that 60% of Spaniards oppose freeing the jailed independence movement leaders, and opposition parties said they are committed to reversing the pardons. In fact, even a Catalan politician, Inés Arrimadas, the head of the centrist Citizens political party, opposes the pardons, saying that they “are a prize for those who have destroyed families, those that have broken the law,” and a “humiliation to” Catalonians “who continue to be loyal to the Constitution and follow the law.”
However, Joaquim Coll, a columnist and historian in Barcelona, holds a contrasting perspective to Arrimadas, claiming that the pardons could actually help prevent an outburst of conflict. According to The New York Times, Coll believes that after the 2017 referendum, the momentum of the independence movement has flagged throughout Spain and thus, there is little threat in releasing the prisoners. Furthermore, he says that by releasing them, the government deprived extreme members of the separatist movement of martyrs who could be used to advocate for more confrontation with Madrid. He states that this will provide more leeway for the moderates in Catalonia.
Government sources say that given Sanchez’s awareness, issuing pardons to Catalan separatists will make him less popular. Therefore, he is relying on using economic recovery and a successful COVID-19 vaccination initiative to increase his likability and popularity, as well as undo any severe damage before his run in the 2023 Spanish national elections. Sanchez’s main objective is to weaken the Catalonia independence movement, in turn resolving the country’s largest political obstacle. Reuters said that Sanchez is also keen on repairing the country’s global reputation. It was tarnished due to the 2017 confrontations and the international view of unjust prison sentence lengths that lasted between nine to thirteen years.
NBC states that Sanchez strives to begin negotiations between the central and regional government regarding the political status of Catalonia. Pere Aragones, Catalonia’s separatist head of government gladly welcomed the pardons, saying they were a necessary step to commence dialogue and negotiations. With that being said, Aragones says that the pardons are still not enough, vouching that the best way towards reconciliation is advocating for an authorized referendum.
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