At the end of an investiture debate that had been fraught, savage and bizarre, even by recent standards, the defeated leader of Spain’s conservative opposition offered his triumphant socialist rival a handshake. It was not accompanied by his warmest wishes.
“This was a mistake,” said Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the People’s party (PP), as he pressed the flesh with a smiling Pedro Sánchez on Thursday. “And you’re responsible for what you’ve just done.”
Given Feijóo’s other characterisations of moves Sánchez has made to secure his Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) another four-year term, the word “mistake” seemed oddly mild.
Sánchez’s decision to accede to the demands of the two main Catalan pro-independence parties – who had made their congressional backing for his new government dependent on an amnesty for hundreds of people involved in the unilateral push to secede from Spain six years ago – has proved profoundly divisive. A day earlier, the PP leader had rattled off a damning psychological profile of the acting prime minister. “You are the problem,” Feijóo told Sánchez. “You and your inability to keep your word, your lack of moral limits, your pathological ambition.
“As long as you’re around, Spain will be condemned to division.” History, he added, would have no amnesty for Pedro Sánchez.
Another senior PP member has compared the proposed law to Franco-era legislation, while the far-right Vox has called Sánchez a “despot” and accused him of perpetrating “a coup d’état in capital letters”.
Overheated and deliberately provocative as much of the political rhetoric has been, it cannot mask the fact that a lot of Spaniards have grave concerns about the amnesty. A poll in mid-September showed that 70% of voters, including 59% of the people who voted for the PSOE in July’s snap general election, were against the amnesty law. The issue has also brought hundreds of thousands of people out to protest in recent weeks. On Saturday, tens of thousands gathered in Madrid to show their opposition to the move. Some carried placards reading, “Separation of powers”, and “Traitors”, and there were chants of “Sánchez resign!” and “Viva España!”.
Sánchez, 51, who had opposed the act of clemency in the runup to the election, now claims the law is needed to promote coexistence and heal the wounds of the past. His administration says it is designed to benefit the ordinary teachers, civil servants, police officers and firefighters facing legal action over their roles in the events of October 2017. The PSOE has argued that a deal had to be struck to banish the possibility of a PP-Vox government that would undo years of social progress and major advances in equality.
The problem is that the most high-profile beneficiary of the proposed law will be Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan regional president, who fled to Belgium to avoid arrest for orchestrating the failed independence bid and whose hardline Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) party pushed for the amnesty alongside the more moderate Catalan Republican Left (ERC). For many Spaniards of many different political stripes, offering this to Puigdemont – the unrepentant architect of the process that pitched the country into its worst political and territorial crisis in decades – is unthinkable. Or wrong. Or both.
Why, then, did Sánchez take the risk? The short answer is that he had to. “We all know that Sánchez took up the issue of the amnesty because he needed Junts’s votes,” said José Pablo Ferrándiz, the head of public opinion and political research at Ipsos Spain. “If he hadn’t needed those votes, we wouldn’t be talking about this now, nor about how important it will be to Spain’s development and to peace.”
The high-stakes decision will also have been driven by his character. One of his defining characteristics has always been his willingness to gamble. It paid off when he used a no-confidence motion to turf the corruption-mired PP government of Mariano Rajoy out of office and take over five years ago. And when he called July’s inconclusive election after the PSOE’s drubbing in May’s regional and local elections.
“He’s a leader who takes risks and who has been capable of changing his mind many times when it’s come to his own personal survival and his party’s survival,” said Ferrándiz. “But that’s always worked out very well for him, and so I think his mentality is that everything he does will turn out well. I think that allows him to take risks.”
It also helps, he added, that Sánchez is not a politician who is excessively beholden to ideology – “and I don’t say that negatively or critically. I think that not having a strong ideology is what allows you to adapt yourself better to circumstances and to the moments when you think your very political survival is at stake”.
Even so, Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III university, described Sánchez’s riskiest play to date as “kind of a leap in the dark”. Having rejected the idea of going to a new election, he said, Sánchez had opted “to ensure the stability of his government whatever the price”.
According to Simón, that price will become clear during the first half of the legislature. He pointed out that, unlike the controversial pardons that Sánchez granted to nine Catalan independence leaders two years ago, the amnesty law will not be a quick and clean affair. If and when it clears congress and the PP-controlled senate, it will be applied by judges on a case-by-case basis, meaning many more awkward and painful moments could be in store.
In the meantime, both the PP and Vox will be seeking to inflict maximum political damage on Sánchez and his coalition partners in the leftwing Sumar alliance.
Despite ignoring the so-called Catalan question until it got well out of hand – and angering many in the region by using the courts to oppose legislative steps towards greater Catalan autonomy in 2010 – Feijóo’s party will use the amnesty law to scourge the new government.
Vox, whose arrival in the political mainstream was fuelled by the Catalan independence crisis, and the PP’s weak response to it, has also embraced the issue in the hope that it will reverse its crumbling support: in July’s election, its seat count collapsed from 52 to 33.
And then there is the matter of Junts. Puigdemont’s party, which shares his unblinking dedication to the creation of an independent Catalonia, has already warned Sánchez not to take its recent congressional support for granted.
“If we are here today, it is to make things really change,” Junts’s spokesperson, Míriam Nogueras, told Sánchez on Wednesday. “But if there is no progress, we will not approve any initiative presented by your government.”
While the coming months promise to be turbulent for Sánchez’s new coalition, he has shown he is not to be underestimated. His famed ability to repurpose adversity could also help him stitch up the social fabric that was rent so violently six years ago.
“We need to bear in mind that this is one of Spain’s historic conflicts and one that needed to be addressed in any case,” said Ferrándiz. “How it should be addressed is another question. But if it isn’t addressed now, it’ll need to be addressed in the future.”
A poll released on Friday by the Catalan government’s own Centre for Opinion Studies may give the Sánchez camp grounds for optimism. It found that 60% of those surveyed were in favour of the amnesty law, while 31% were opposed. It also revealed that 52% of those polled were against Catalan independence, compared with 41% who were in favour. As importantly, it showed that the Catalan branch of the socialist party is still leading the polls and would once again finish first in a regional election, beating Junts and the ERC.
The problem is that the political stakes have rarely been higher – even for a player as seasoned and expert as Sánchez.
“If this legislature turns out badly, the Spanish left could be in opposition for 20 years, and history won’t remember Sánchez fondly,” said Pablo Simón. “But if it turns out well, we could see the pro-independence parties returning to the path of governability and lessening their demands .That’s what’s in play in this gamble. But there are a lot of adversaries and a lot of people who will be hoping Sánchez comes a cropper.”