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To stay in power, Spain’s Socialists offer amnesty to Catalan separatists

Spain’s Socialist Party struck a highly controversial deal to remain in power on Thursday by offering an amnesty to separatists who staged a failed 2017 bid for Catalan independence in exchange for their political backing.

The deal brings Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez — a photogenic 51-year-old who has served as one of Europe’s most progressive prime ministers since 2018 — within striking distance of the majority he needs to form a new government after a July election resulted in a hung parliament. A final deal with Basque nationalists, described as very advanced, would put Sánchez over the top.

Yet the amnesty for Catalan separatists who sought to break away from Madrid six years ago is widely unpopular in Spain. It has sparked violent protests and could fan the fires of nationalism and lift the prospects of the far-right forces that underperformed expectations in the last vote.

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It was not immediately known whether the shooting of a nationalist political figure in Madrid on Thursday was related to the amnesty controversy.

Alejo Vidal-Quadras, 78, a former president of the right-wing People’s Party in Catalonia and later a founder of the far-right Vox Party, was shot in the face around 1:30 p.m. in the fashionable neighborhood of Salamanca, according to a National Police official speaking on the condition of anonymity ahead of a formal statement. Vidal-Quadras was conscious when taken to the hospital, police said. Forensics teams were on the scene, with Madrid’s homicide police investigating the motive.

Vidal-Quadras, an elder statesman no longer viewed as an influential player in Spanish politics, was shot at close range by an assailant who had been waiting for him and who escaped on a motorcycle driven by an accomplice, according to El Pais and ABC Madrid. He had just exited Mass and was set to attend a demonstration against the amnesty deal.

Hours before the shooting, he wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that the deal “crushes the rule of law in Spain and ends the separation of powers has already been agreed. Our Nation will thus cease to be a liberal democracy and become a totalitarian tyranny. We Spaniards will not allow it.”

Without citing evidence, Santiago Abascal, head of Vox, called the attack an “assassination attempt” against a man known for ‘his defense of the nation, liberty and the institutions in Catalonia.”

“We call on the security forces of the state to capture these assassins and that nobody grants them amnesty, ever,” Abascal told reporters.

The amnesty deal, reached after a lengthy negotiation in which Catalan figures pushed for the broadest amnesty possible, would grant legal protection to hundreds of separatists and Catalan politicians for alleged crimes largely related to Catalonia’s illegal vote and declaration of independence in 2017.

“It is a historic opportunity to solve a conflict that should only be solved through politics,” Santos Cerdán, secretary general of Sánchez ’s Socialist Party, told reporters in Brussels. “Despite the huge divergences, we are ready to open a new historic stage.”

Cerdán said the details of an amnesty law, which must be approved by parliament and is set to be challenged by the right-wing opposition in the Constitutional Court, would not be released until it had been viewed by other parties supporting Sánchez. But he said the law would cover alleged crimes tied to the independence movement that occurred between 2012 and 2023. Cerdán did not mention names or the number of those covered and said it would be up to judges to decide whether the law applied in any specific case.

Much attention has centered on the most prominent Catalan political leader, Carles Puigdemont — who has been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium to avoid arrest on charges of rebellion and misuse of public funds. A Spanish judge has further asked to question him on terrorism charges linked to 2019 protests against the sentencing of nine Catalan politicians in connection with the 2017 vote. Theoretically, those charges could also be covered by the broad definition of the amnesty.

Puigdemont on Thursday did not specifically address whether the amnesty would apply to him but said it had been drafted in the broadest possible terms to include anyone facing legal jeopardy because of the independence movement. He called the deal part of a “unprecedented” dialogue with the Spanish state, but warned the “stability of the government” would depend on a “permanent negotiation” on the future of Catalonia.

“The amnesty would contribute to decriminalizing our movement,” he said.

Negotiations over the deal have driven thousands of people to protest in recent days. Shouting “end the treason,” they have rallied in front of Socialist Party headquarters in Madrid and other Spanish cities, confronting tear-gas-wielding police. Some unsuccessfully sought to enter the halls of parliament.

“This is a coup against the state, against democracy and against the law,” Abascal said Thursday. “It marks the beginning of a dark period for Spain.”

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, head of center-right People’s Party that won the most votes in the July election, had tried and failed to win enough support in parliament to former a government himself. On Thursday, he reiterated his condemnation of the amnesty and called for peaceful protests on Sunday.

“These agreements of shame do not solve any problem, but aggravate them all,” he said. “It will be a blow to the foundations of the Judiciary, will weaken the State and will legitimize the discourse of the independence [movement], which comes out reinforced.”

Most of those protesting have been from the political right. But a national survey by the GAD3 polling firm for ABC Madrid, released this week, showed the agreement was opposed by nearly 60 percent of respondents.

“It’s extremely unpopular, especially among the right, but it’s somewhat unpopular for a bunch of left-wing voters also,” said Lluís Orriols, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University. Because it keeps the Socialists in power, “some left-wing voters are convinced that perhaps this is positive,” he said. “But people don’t like it. It connects a lot with national identity.”

European Union officials also expressed concern, with the bloc’s justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, sending a letter to senior Spanish authorities this week demanding further details of the amnesty and reminding them of the need to “ensure respect for the rule of law.”

“Serious concerns are now being voiced as regards ongoing discussions on the possible adoption of an amnesty law,” Reynders wrote in a letter to Spain’s presidency minister, Felipe Bolanos, and justice minister, Pilar Llop.

Sánchez himself previously declared an amnesty unconstitutional. His government sought to soften the punishments for separatist leaders in other ways, granting pardons in 2021 to nine politicians jailed for their involvement in the independence referendum, removing the crime of sedition from the penal code and reducing the sentencing for misuse of public funds.

Now, though, Sánchez has said amnesty is important for national healing.

“Catalonia is ready for a total reunification,” Sánchez told his party leadership last month. “In the name of Spain, in the interest of Spain, in defense of coexistence among Spaniards, I defend today the amnesty in Catalonia for the events of the past decade.”

Sánchez also sold the deal to his party as the only way to maintain power — and prevent a new government that could include far-right Vox.

To win over the Republican Left of Catalonia, the Socialists also agreed to cancel 15 billion euros in Catalan regional debt and transfer control of a commuter rail service to the Catalan government.

The question about the constitutionality of amnesty, however, persists.

Spain’s administrative judicial body — the General Council of the Judiciary, which skews conservative — took the highly unusual step this week of preemptively expressing “intense concern and desolation for what the amnesty implies for the degradation, if not abolition, of the rule of law in Spain.” On Thursday, Spain’s four professional associations representing judges denounced the deal as likely to generate “obvious interference in judicial independence and a breach of the separation of powers.”

Opposition parties have said they will challenge the amnesty before Spain’s Constitutional Court, which leans progressive. If the law is struck down, analysts view a collapse of a new Sánchez government as likely.

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