Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has confirmed controversial plans to pardon nine Catalan separatists who were jailed for their role in the illegal independence referendum of 2017.
The Socialist leader made the widely expected announcement during a speech in Catalonia’s capital, Barcelona, on Monday morning.
“Tomorrow, guided by this constitutional spirit of forgiveness, I will propose that the cabinet approve the pardon,” Sanchez said.
His speech was briefly interrupted by a young pro-separatist, while dozens more protestors stood outside. Some said pardons did not go far enough, calling instead for amnesty.
The government had argued last year that the sedition laws which saw the nine figures jailed for up to 13 years were excessively harsh.
The move to spare the separatists of punishment has garnered a mixed reaction in Spain.
One recent survey said more than 60 percent of Spaniards were opposed to the plan and last week, thousands gathered to protest against the pardons.
Most Catalans, however, approve.
The Spanish Confederation of Business Organisations (CEOE), Spain’s business community leader, had also said it favoured the move.
The country’s right-wing parties, meanwhile, currently on the rise in the polls, will be certain to use the pardons, even if – as seems likely – they will only be partial, as a rallying cry.
Last Sunday, conservative Isabel Díaz Ayuso, Madrid’s regional president, suggested they could place King Felipe in a difficult situation, as according to the Spanish Constitution, he would have to sign off the measures.
The pardons also leave the question of Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president currently in self-imposed exile and who faces charges for his role in the independence bid, unresolved.
“It’s extremely risky, politically,” Oriol Bartomeus, professor of political science at Barcelona’s Universidad Autonoma, told Al Jazeera. “The dialogue which will start now could end up going badly. Forces contrary to it, both hardline separatists and on the hard right in Spain, could end up getting stronger.
“So while this was a vital step if Sanchez wanted to unblock the situation, it doesn’t guarantee that we will be able to move onto the next stage.”
The pardons are currently being drawn up by the government’s legal advisers, who want to limit potential court challenges.
Once published in the official state bulletin at a yet-to-be established date, they would become immediately applicable.
Sanchez hailed the development as “a huge step towards reconciliation”.
“We are going to rebuild social harmony. We cannot start from nothing, but we can start again. We love you Catalonia,” he said.
The new, pro-separatist Catalan president Pere Aragones will meet Sanchez this month to discuss what is viewed as Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades.
At the grassroots level, Catalans like payroll specialist Vinyet Noguera, who is against the separatist bid, welcomed the move to pardon the separatists.
“There have been a lot of deep divisions here about this, even in daily life. This could ease the confrontation,” Noguera told Al Jazeera.
“The harsher the treatment those in favour of breaking away received, the more it was going to strengthen the separatists’ cause. A gesture like this means we can start to understand each other better.”
Some analysts believe the pardons are a question of political expediency, given Sanchez’s dependence on support from the moderate Catalan nationalists for his minority government.
“Personally, I don’t believe Sánchez is doing this because deep in his heart he’s in favour of pardons,” Germa Capdevila, a Catalan political analyst with naciodigital.cat, told Al Jazeera. “He knows that the right and extreme right are waiting for him to fail and the only guaranteed support is from Basque and Catalan Nationalists.”
He added that this would not detract from the possible positive consequences for Catalonia and Spain, however.
“This is what politics is about. Sanchez is paying a price now, but in two years’ time if the economy bounces back, nobody in Spain will remember these guys are on the street.
“In Catalonia, there are currently thousands of people facing cases over the independence bid, so if the gestures end here, it heals nothing. But this is a first step.”