Spain leader defends amnesty deal for Catalan in parliament ahead of vote to form new government

Spain's acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez applauds at the start of the investiture debate at the Spanish Parliament in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Sanchez will defend his controversial amnesty deal for Catalonia's separatists in parliament as part of a debate a day before the Socialist leader seeks the endorsement of the chamber to form a new government. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)


MADRID (AP) — Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez defended his controversial amnesty deal for Catalonia’s separatists in parliament on Wednesday as part of a debate a day before the Socialist leader seeks the endorsement of the chamber to form a new government.

Sánchez has tied up the public support of six smaller parties to ensure that he can reach the absolute majority of 176 deputies voting in favor of reestablishing his minority coalition government with the left-wing Sumar (Joining Forces) party.

Controversy arose after deals were signed with two Catalan separatist parties that included a commitment to pass an amnesty law that would wipe the slate clean for hundreds of Catalan separatists who had run afoul of the law for their roles in the wealthy northeast region’s failed 2017 secession bid. The deals include former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont, who is a fugitive from Spanish law after he fled to Belgium six years ago.

“We are going to promote a climate of living together in harmony and forgiveness,” Sánchez told lawmakers in reference to his act of grace. “In Catalonia and other regions there are citizens who believe that they would be do better going their own way. This government believes that a united Spain is a better Spain.”

Sánchez chided the leading opposition Popular Party for its hard-line stance against the separatists, which he said only contributed to pushing more Catalans into the secessionist camp when the conservatives were governing. He boasted that his pardoning of imprisoned separatist leaders in 2021 had led to reducing tensions in northeast Catalonia.

“Dialogue, a generous attitude and forgiveness has worked. That is that our proposal is to continue with the position for the next hour years,” he said to applause from his party amid some jeers from his opponents.

Spain’s judges have heavily criticized the proposed amnesty, calling it an intrusion of the legislative branch into the separation of powers. The European Union is also reviewing the proposed amnesty.

The amnesty agreement has also sparked protests in Madrid and even in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. Spain’s opposition conservative and far-right parties accuse Sánchez of betraying the nation for granting the amnesty just to hold onto power. More protests are expected in downtown Madrid where the parliament building is under tight security.

“For those who had peacefully protested, I want to show them my respect and acknowledgement,” Sánchez said before defending the constitutionality of the support he has garnered.

Sánchez spent most of his initial speech presenting his plan for government. He compared his policies to expand women’s rights and adapt to climate change to what the called the reactionary agenda of a Popular Party that has entered into alliances with the far-right Vox party in several regional governments.

“The only effective barrier to the policies of the far right is our coalition government,” Sánchez said.

If Sánchez, who has been prime minister since 2018 and one of the longest-serving Socialist leaders in Europe, were to lose Thursday’s vote, he would have a second chance on Saturday to win more “yes” than “no” votes.

The formation of a new government would end a period of political uncertainty since inconclusive national elections on July 23 left a highly fractured parliament. The Popular Party was the most voted party in the summer’s elections, but it failed to form a government when it tried in September.

Besides the amnesty, Sánchez had to make more concessions to Puigdemont’s Junts (Together) and rival separatist party Republican Left for Catalonia.

The Socialists agreed with Republican Left of Catalonia to relieve millions of euros of debt for the region and to cede it partial control of commuter train services. Sánchez’s party then bent to Puigdemont’s pressure to let Catalonia keep more of its tax revenues, and most contentiously, open talks on the possibility of debating a referendum for independence for Catalonia, but within the limits of the Spanish Constitution.

Sánchez has defended his deals saying that they will help to continue to normalize the political situation in Catalonia. The separatists’ parties have lost power in recent elections, while Sánchez’s Socialists have surged in the region.

The deal also means that Puigdemont’s party has for the first time in nearly a decade dropped its posture of trying to destabilize the Spanish state and, at least for now, and guaranteeing Sánchez remains in power by agreeing to vote with the government on key bills.

___ Associated Press writer Jospeh Wilson in Barcelona, Spain, contributed to this report.