Spain election drama: Sanchez wins backing for new term after Catalan deal

The socialist Spanish politician has won parliamentary support to be PM again, after striking a controversial agreement with Catalan separatists.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has served since 2018 [File: Juan Medina/Reuters]

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has won parliament’s backing for a new term in office after striking a controversial deal with Catalan separatists.

In exchange for supporting Sanchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), nationalists from the Spanish region of Catalonia secured a commitment from the PSOE leader to pass an amnesty law that would pardon those linked to the botched Catalan bid for independence six years ago.

More than 300 people accused of crimes in relation to Catalan independence between January 1, 2012, and November 13, 2023, could benefit from the legislation.

Those episodes included crimes during the unsanctioned October 2017 referendum, which Madrid met with a heavy police crackdown,

What’s happening?

Sanchez – prime minister of Spain since 2018 – lost out to the centre-right Popular Party (PP) in the general election four months ago.

But unable to form a government, PP was forced to concede to the PSOE which has enlisted the support of Catalan and Basque nationalists and other regional parties in its bid to govern.

On Thursday, the lower house voted him in as prime minister again, but by a small margin.

Why does the support of Catalan nationalists matter?

Sanchez’s decision to court the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the centre-right Junts per Catalunya – parties which support independence for Catalonia – has outraged Spanish conservatives, who decried the amnesty bill.

This despite one minister in the Spanish government, presidency minister and PSOE senior official Felix Bolanos, hailing the legislation as a way to “heal wounds and resolve the existing political conflict in Catalonia”.

Indeed, following news of Sanchez’s decision to pursue legislation intent on pardoning Catalans accused of political sedition, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Spain on Sunday to express their opposition.

On Tuesday, Alberto Nunez Feijoo, the leader of PP, appealed to the European Union itself to intervene, calling the proposed law “an unprecedented situation”.

He complained that “the amnesty [bill] is a direct payment for the votes needed for the [PSOE] to form a government. And who pays for that? The Spanish people, but also, in my opinion, Europe, because the deterioration of a democracy like Spain’s … will obviously have consequences for European institutions”.

Among those who could be pardoned is former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, the leader of Junts and the brains behind the illegal referendum, who today lives in exile in Belgium.

What will Sanchez’s likely re-election mean for Spain’s domestic future and foreign policies?

Public hostility towards the amnesty bill is suggested by a recent poll which indicated that 70 percent of the Spanish electorate opposes the legislation. The judiciary, too, has signalled its opposition, meaning that simply passing the bill in parliament might not be enough for Sanchez to fully make good on his pledge.

However, on the international front, a newly re-elected Sanchez is unlikely to soften his criticism of Israel’s military action in Gaza. On Wednesday, the leftist leader condemned the Jewish state for its “indiscriminate killing of Palestinians” in the enclave – and promised to “work in Europe and in Spain to recognise the Palestinian state”.

In contrast to the likes of the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, Sanchez also called for an end to Israel’s bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza where more than 11,300 people have been killed by Israeli air strikes following Hamas’s deadly attack on southern Israel on October 7.

“We demand an immediate ceasefire on the part of Israel in Gaza and strict compliance with international humanitarian law, which today is clearly not respected,” he said.

Andrew Dowling, a reader in Hispanic studies at Cardiff University and author of the 2022 book, Catalonia: A New History, told Al Jazeera that a second-term Sanchez government would also continue to be part of a “mainstream Europe” which has sought “to isolate the far right”.

“Spain is very much a mainstream political actor within a European context,” said the academic. “And also plays a very important role with North Africa and the Arab world. And also, for reasons of culture and history, with Latin America. So those are the kind of axis of Spanish foreign policy.”

Source: Al Jazeera